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Montana

State Library Commission Eliminates Education Standard for Large Library Directors

In a move that contradicts professional recommendations and a majority of public opinion, the commission opted to remove a state standard requiring directors of Montana’s largest libraries, including the Flathead Valley's ImagineIF system, to have earned a graduate degree

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on Oct. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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

The vote fell along the same lines as a preliminary decision in October, when the commission opted to remove the standard against the recommendation of a state-appointed task force. Wednesday’s vote also ran counter to the majority of public opinion; of the 532 written comments submitted for consideration, more than 400 came from library patrons, directors and librarians in favor of keeping the educational requirement.

“I would ask people to remember we are not lowering standards. We are not bypassing standards,” Commissioner Tammy Hall said. “We are directly passing standards on to a local government board and they are welcome to raise the standards … They can raise the standards, but I do not see them lowering the standards.”

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

The move to eliminate the requirement for a graduate degree came at the behest of the ImagineIF Libraries trustees in Flathead County, who sacrificed the public library’s state certification and more than $35,000 in annual funding when they hired a non-degreed library director in 2022. That decision was made after a months-long struggle to recruit top-tier candidates due to widely publicized board dysfunction and a base compensation level well below market rate. Following the hiring of Ashley Cummins, who has since resigned, the Flathead County library was deemed ineligible for state funding and a majority of ImagineIF trustees began lobbying for a change in state standards, including Carmen Cuthbertson, who was subsequently appointed to the MSL commission.

“If we eliminate [this standard], we leave 30 other quality assurance standards in place,” Cuthbertson told the commission. “So when I look at that, I just want to assuage any fears. It’s not going to be a no-holds barred, every library does what they want kind of scenario if we abandon this one standard.”

Responding to several written comments that library boards were gaining too much power by limiting state oversight, Cuthbertson told the commission, “that’s actually how it’s supposed to be,” citing a section of Montana Code Annotated (MCA) that Cuthbertson interpreted as imbuing library boards with “a lot of power.”

“Library trustees, by law, are supposed to be in charge,” she said. Many comments reflected a fear that dropping the standard would lead to local trustee boards hiring unqualified library directors, which Cuthbertson said “is a little bit insulting for all the citizen volunteers that are trustees for our public libraries.”

Only the largest eight libraries in the state of Montana are subject to the educational requirement for their director, though 13 smaller libraries across the state also have librarians with advanced degrees.  

The seven largest library directors, excluding ImagineIF, submitted a joint letter to the commission asking that they retain the standard, saying they felt “disappointed and dismayed.”

“The purpose of the standards is to incentivize local investment in staffing and services so that all Montanans can access quality library services. Undermining this standard at the request of one library can be the first step down the slippery slope undermining all standards,” the library directors wrote. “People across Montana love and hold dear their public libraries, which have a long and proud history of serving their communities. We do not feel the Commission has served Montana Library users in this matter; their actions felt like a subtly subversive and political attack on Montana libraries.”

The only library director who agreed with removing the standard was Cummins, the former ImagineIF director who submitted a letter describing the “personal nightmare” she experienced when she began her job in Flathead County, due to the public perception that she was unqualified for her job. “The standard as is does a huge disservice to library professionals that have committed their lives to library service, to the community, and to further their career,” she wrote. “The current standard does not account for non-traditional pathways to education, experience or leadership. The current standard does not ensure diversity, inclusion and equity in library services to all Montanans — which I know is a core value of the Montana State Library and libraries all across this state.”

Ashley Cummins, ImagineIF Libraries Director, attends a library board meeting in Columbia Falls on Oct. 27, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Of the 532 written comments submitted to the MSL commission, 412 favored keeping the graduate degree requirement. A majority of comments came from residents within the service area of ImagineIF; of those, 168 favored keeping the standard while 63 favored its removal. All five ImagineIF trustees gave comment on the decision, with only Jane Wheeler supporting the requirement.

Dave Ingram, chair of the ImagineIF trustees, said removing the educational requirement will equalize opportunities for libraries of all sizes to employ whomever they see fit, and will be a fair deal for taxpayers.

“It has been stated that the smaller libraries depend on the larger libraries as a resource,” he said during a Dec. 1 public hearing on the matter. “So, the large libraries should shoulder the cost of additional requirements with their larger budgets? This progressive perspective is at odds with equal treatment to me and our county’s taxpayers.”

Ingram also decried the MSL-appointed task force, which he was also appointed to, for basing their recommendation to retain the standard based on a survey which relied “overwhelmingly” on responses from library directors and staff across the state, which he didn’t believe was a valid representation of Montanans.

Another ImagineIF trustee, Heidi Roedel, spoke at the commission meeting, sharing her perspective as a longtime trustee.

“I have served over two years with a director that had an MLS, and just under two years with the director who did not have an MLS. I personally had respect for both directors and saw them both as skilled professionals,” Roedel, who served on the most recent hiring committee, said. “I feel we made the decision that was best for our community and library. Our public library lost funding, but what we gained was invaluable. Our library is running well. All of our staff have had raises, our books are on the shelves and not in crates in the basement, our doors are open and we continue to have great programs and good customer service. Please do not require few libraries to have additional requirements that can be challenging to meet at times.”

“I believe that each community should be able to decide for themselves what is best for their tax-funded libraries,” Roedel added.

The elimination of the educational requirement will factor in to the current search for a new ImagineIF library director. Office manager Teri Dugan has served as director in an interim role since Cummins’ resignation at the end of October.

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