Montana State Library Commission Votes to Eliminate Educational Standard for Large Library Directors

In an effort to regain eligibility for state funding, ImagineIF Libraries trustees have lobbied to change a rule requiring directors of large libraries to have earned a master's degree

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

The Montana State Library (MSL) Commission on Wednesday voted to remove a state requirement that directors of a library system serving more than 25,000 residents have a master’s degree in library science, the long-established educational standard for the profession. In the 5-2 vote to lift the standard, commissioners cited a desire to bolster local control by giving library trustees, and county and city officials, the ability to determine their own requirements.

The decision, which if formalized would apply to the state’s eight largest public libraries, came in response to appeals from the trustees of ImagineIF Libraries in Flathead County, which is currently the only Montana library not in compliance. A majority of ImagineIF trustees began lobbying for the change after the public library was deemed ineligible for state funding following the hiring of its last library director, Ashley Cummins. Despite knowing that state funding was predicated on the director holding a master’s degree, in 2021 the ImagineIF trustees limited their interviews with final candidates to those without graduate-level education, ultimately hiring Cummins. In doing so, it sacrificed its state certification and about $35,000 in funding.

Since Cummins’ hiring, members of the trustee board have extensively lobbied the state for hardship exceptions or an outright change to the rule to regain their eligibility for funding.

“The elephant in the room that I think we need to acknowledge is that we’re having this discussion based on the decision of a single library,” Montana State Library Commissioner Brian Rossmann said during Wednesday’s meeting, referring to ImagineIF. “And policymakers should not make policies based on exceptions. Local control is not a standard, and ImagineIF does have local control — it exercised that local control in choosing not to meet the standard.”

Commissioner Tammy Hall made the motion to remove the standard, arguing that using an arbitrary population number as a reason for the state to impose stricter operating regulations is “degrading to those libraries.” Joining Hall in the support were governor-appointed commissioners Robyn Scribner, Tom Burnett and Carmen Cuthbertson, and State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, who also sits on the MSL commission. Brian Rossmann, who holds a graduate degree in library science, and Peggy Taylor opposed the change.

In response to ImagineIF’s self-inflicted loss of accreditation by the state, the MSL Commission convened a 12-person task force in July charged with reviewing several administrative rules, including the directorship requirements.

In a survey conducted by the MSL, 80% of respondents stated “a master’s degree in library or information science is necessary” for library directors serving more than 25,000 people. The 127 individuals surveyed comprised 28 library directors, 74 library staff, five library trustees and 20 members of the public.

“A master’s degree is the very standard for libraries across the United States. It will set off internal alarm bells for job candidates if Montana requires less education for library director positions than most states require for run-of-the-mill librarians,” wrote one anonymous survey responder.

According to a memo from Tracy Cook, MSL’s lead consulting librarian, 23 states require library directors to have an MSL or equivalent graduate degree, 13 require a director to be certified by the state library, and two require some form of college degree. Only five states do not have any requirements for a library director.

During a Sept. 22 meeting of the task force, Livingston-Park County Public Library Director Mitch Grady made the case for keeping the professional standard in place.

“This is a standard that has existed for decades and never caused trouble except for once, which is a self-inflicted reason,” Grady said. “There’s been a subtle shifting of the burden of proof on this. It’s not up to those of us who are in favor of retaining the standard to prove why it should be retained, it’s up to those who want to change it to tell us and give a good argument for why it should not be retained. And I haven’t heard any good arguments.”

Dave Ingram, chair of the ImagineIF Board of Trustees, served as a member of the task force and opined that removing the requirement recognized that local library boards bring “a certain level of integrity and thought to the hiring and administration of their libraries.”

Board Vice Chair David Ingram at an ImagineIF Libraries board meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The task force voted to recommend the state library keep the standard as it is, with Ingram voting in the minority.

During Wednesday’s commission meeting, Ingram again gave public comment about removing the standard. During his comments he pointed to the MSL’s statewide poll, called it “skewed” for including mostly library staff and directors, as opposed to the trustee members who make the hiring decisions and control a library’s purse strings.

“The time and effort spent by trustees at the largest libraries is significant, and their desire to provide excellent services is not lessened by the size of their library,” he said. Ingram added that most library graduate programs are certified by the American Library Association (ALA), a professional advocacy organization that has emerged as a polarizing group in recent months, leading the MSL, and ImagineIF, to disassociate. “Forcing large libraries in Montana to hire exclusively from this director pool appears to run counter to the commission’s desire to disassociate from ALA ideology.”

Susan Gregory, director of the Bozeman Public Library, said that removing the requirement of a professional degree devalued the profession, and compared it to becoming a school principal, where a master’s degree is required in Montana in order to be licensed.

“Based on one community, we’re being told ‘no, your profession is different. You don’t need to be licensed. Anybody in your community can come in and run the library,’” she said. “We don’t question a professional degree with a physician. We don’t question a JD with an attorney. And yet now we’re saying the librarianship is not a profession that needs a professional course of study.”

Another ImagineIF library trustee, Carmen Cuthbertson, serves on the MSL commission. Although she disclosed her conflict of interest, Cuthbertson did not recuse herself from the vote, despite previously telling the Beacon she would do so if necessary. Cuthbertson cited a meeting with Montana’s lieutenant governor during which she said it was concluded that speaking and voting on the changes would not be considered improper as she does not have a personal or private interest in the matter, even though the library she represents would benefit financially.

Carmen said Wednesday that while advanced degrees are valued, and that two ImagineIF staff librarians have earned their master’s degrees, she viewed running a library as requiring a different skillset, arguing that experience is not tied directly to library knowledge.

“At some point, you need a business administrator,” she said. “[Our director] was not out on the floor a lot because she had other duties. She had to go to countywide meetings, she needed different skills.”

Board member Carmen Cuthbertson at an ImagineIF Libraries board meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Going back to 2021, ImagineIF Trustees have harbored desires to hire a library director who leans more towards a manager than a professional librarian, a desire underscored by a vote to decrease the director’s salary by nearly $10,000.

            In an email exchange from the summer of 2021, obtained by the Beacon through a public records request, Ingram told fellow ImagineIF trustee Doug Adams that a director resigning was an “opportunity to ‘temporarily’ have a manager with straight business experience to hold things together,” and that “a director, without any agenda except customer service, would be great.”

Last month, ImagineIF Libraries Director Ashley Cummins submitted her letter of resignation, prompting the trustees to promote Executive Assistant Teri Dugan as the library system’s acting director, a position Dugan will assume following Cummins’ departure at the end of October.

“I do hope that it becomes official,” Ingram told the Beacon. “This will allow all libraries in Montana to select the director that they feel best fits their needs.” The ImagineIF board has not yet set a timeline for hiring a new director.

Since Wednesday’s vote will change the Administrative Rules of Montana, the draft rule is subject to a 30-day public comment period once filed with the Secretary of State’s office that the commission will consider before taking final action, which is expected to be on their Dec. 6 meeting agenda.

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