Montana State Library Commission Discusses ImagineIF Certification, Funding

Three ImagineIF library trustees and a county commissioner requested clarification on rules that led to the loss of $35,000 in funding

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on March 14, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A loss of state funding and certification for the ImagineIF Library was discussed at the Montana State Library (MSL) Commission’s April 13 meeting in Helena.

The state commission oversees the dissemination of state aid to Montana’s nearly 100 library branches that meet standards for certification outlined in the Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM).

According to ARM, in order for a library serving a population of more than 25,000 residents to be certified it must have a director with a “graduate degree in library or information science or its equivalent,” but on Jan. 6 the ImagineIF trustees voted 3-2 to hire Ashley Cummins as the new library director, despite her lack of a degree. At that meeting Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp informed the trustees that the hire did not meet state standards and would lead to the loss of roughly $35,000 in funding.

“We were aware of what we were doing when we chose Ashley to be our next director. We knew the risks and again, I don’t regret it for a second.  I am not going to let money dissuade me from doing what I think is right,” ImagineIF Trustee Doug Adams told the commission. “I could not be happier with the selection we made and regardless of state funding or certification, I have absolutely no regrets.”

On March 24, the ImagineIF trustees voted not to appeal the disqualification of funding, a decision that was upheld at an April 1 meeting, with Adams stating there were no grounds for challenging the decision.

Instead of appealing, three trustees – Adams, Dave Ingram and Heidi Roedel, as well as Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl – made the trip to Helena to ask for more clarification on the rules and ask the commission to consider broadening public library standards to use experience and a library’s entire staff’s credentials as an avenue for certification.

Ingram stated that throughout the hiring process, and when the trustees voted last summer to remove a graduate degree as a required qualification for the position, he did not know that the equivalency standard did not include experience, an interpretation shared by Brodehl.

“It doesn’t say equivalent degree, it says ‘the equivalent,’ but that is not defined,” Brodehl said. “How this commission, or how the state library defines the equivalent may be different than I do, may be different than anybody else in this room.”

Brodehl added that the decision to not certify the library and withhold funding is “punitive.”

Library advisor Ben Mason shelves books at ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on Oct. 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last year Stapp told the Beacon that the rule specifically means an equivalent graduate degree, as many schools have different names for the library science field.

“If the library hires a library director without a master’s in library science (MLS) or equivalent degree the library could not certify that they meet all of the library standards … and would not qualify for state aid funding,” Stapp wrote in a December email.

Montana assistant attorney general Katherine Orr wrote a memorandum dated April 10 interpreting the ARM standard, stating “there is no exception in the rules or statures that allows for a substitution of other staff credentials or combined staff input for fulfilling the credential requirements of a library director.” Orr went on to write that as ARM recognizes the library director as the sole authority who reports to the trustees and carries out administration of a library, they “can do so only with the professional credentialing necessary.”

Susie Burch, a member of the screening committee that interviewed candidates, pushed back against suggestions by Brodehl and Ingram that the best candidates made it through the hiring process. Burch had characterized the process as a “failed search,” and requested the committee start over with a higher salary, an option not taken up by other members of the committee. Ingram stated his unwillingness to start over stemmed from not wanting ImagineIF to go another six months or more without leadership and worried about additional staffing losses.

Brodehl characterized the salary reclassification as bringing the library director in line with other department heads, specifically pointing out that it is now similar to the sheriff’s salary, “which is a significantly larger department and certainly the risk is different.” As a commissioner, Brodehl did not participate in the salary reclassification, which was initiated by the library trustees.

Kenning Arlitsch, the MSL commission chair, ended the discussion by sharing what he characterized as the “steady erosion of funding and emphasis on libraries” during his nearly 30 years in the profession.

“One of the things we are taught in librarianship is about the free access to information. Censorship, any kind of control of collections is antithetical to freedom, and so that is why it’s important for us as a discipline, as a profession, to have standards, to have certifications,” Arlitsch said. “This is our standard. This is what defines this profession. And so, for me, it’s very difficult to consider loosening that standard or make exceptions to that standard because I know what happens after that.”

Arlitsch added that his words were not personally directed to Cummins and he had faith she would be a “tremendous director.”

Without an official appeal by the trustees, the MSL commission did not take any formal action. This summer director Cummins will have to certify whether ImagineIF meets the state’s standards, which will be an opportunity for the trustees to officially request a waiver or appeal the certification ruling.