New ImagineIF Director Touts Unconventional Path to Becoming Librarian

Despite tensions surrounding public library trustees, Ashley Cummins expresses excitement to work with staff, build relationships

By Micah Drew
ImagineIf Library in Kalispell. Beacon File Photo

Through many difficult stages of her life, Ashley Cummins has turned to her local library as a safe haven.

“I was that young child riding to the library on my bike to escape an abusive home life,” she said during an open house for candidates in Kalispell in January. “I was also that emo kid reading dystopian fiction in the stacks to avoid being bullied at school. I was the young mother attending story times because Icouldn’t afford to put my children in preschool and I was the college student writing research papers with the help of the library collections.”

For Cummins, libraries have been a constant source of refuge and freedom, something she plans to champion as the incoming director of Flathead County’s ImagineIF library system.

Cummins considers herself to be an accidental librarian — she dreamed of moving to New York and ending up on Broadway before heading down a path of music education.

“I got to this point that, while music was this thing that I loved, I found myself in this really advanced music theory class and it was just misery,” Cummins said in a recent interview. “Having something you love suddenly be not so fun let me know that maybe it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in my life.”

As a lifelong patron, Cummins was tuned in to the library sphere in Russellville, Ala., and one day she saw a notice in the local paper that the local branch needed volunteers.

“I was in there all the time anyways, so I figured I might as well help out,” Cummins said.

Her first project as a volunteer was weeding through the collection and removing books that were old or in disrepair and updating the catalog. Soon, her work shifted to managing the circulation desk, helping direct customers through the stacks and assisting with programming until, a little more than a year after starting to volunteer, the library director asked if she wanted to start getting paid for her work.

“I’ll never forget the joy I felt that day,” Cummins said. “It’s such fulfilling work and I was actually excited to go to work every day. You can’t often leave work for home every day feeling like you’ve maybe made a difference in someone’s life, but you can when you work at a library.”

It was only a few years later that Cummins was tapped to run the Russellville library when the director stepped down.

One of the first things Cummins tackled as director was figuring out how to put on the summer reading program with a limited budget, which sent her off to grant writing classes in order to secure the necessary funding.

“That lit a fire in me tokeep trying to go and see what we could do to further our mission area, grow programs and deliver more services,” Cummins said.

Over her tenure as director, Cummins nearly doubled the library’s budget and restarted a latent Friends of the Library support group, all while working towards her first degree as a part-time student.

Cummins was one of two finalists who came to Kalispell in January to interview for the position at ImagineIF and was hired in a split 3-2 vote by the board of trustees.

One point of contention during the trustees meeting voting on the hire was Cummins’ lack of a master’s degree in library science (MLS), which is a requirement by the Montana State Library to be eligible for state funding. While Cummins says she hopes to earn her MLS, until she does ImagineIF will remain ineligible for around $35,000 in state funds each year.

Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl pressed the Governor’s office following Cummins’ Jan. 6 hiring in an effort to convince the Montana State Library to assess ImagineIF’s collective credentials, rather than those held solely by its director, to byspass the certification requirement for funding.

While the lieutenant governor, Kristin Juras, met twice with the state librarian, the Governor’s Office ultimately decided not to get involved.

The loss of funding is just one of many contentious hurdles that the ImagineIF trustees and staff have navigated in recent months, and Cummins is aware that when she starts this week, she’ll be stepping into a tense environment.

“The staff has been through a lot, but they have maintained service to just really stellar levels, and are incredibly capable,” Cummins said. “I’m forever impressed by it and I’m excited to start working with all of them.”

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