The Montana State Library Commission voted Wednesday to strike a longstanding professional requirement applied to the directors of Montana’s eight largest libraries, one that dictates whether those libraries qualify for state funding.
Currently, public libraries that serve more than 25,000 people must employ a director with a graduate degree in library or information science in order to qualify for state certification and, by extension, state revenue. A task force earlier this year recommended that the library commission maintain that requirement. However, several commissioners Wednesday argued that professional standards should be left to local library trustees to set.
“I don’t think that we, as a commission of seven, or the task force have the right to tell people in the biggest libraries in Montana — only eight of them — ‘You are not capable of deciding what your librarian should be,” commissioner Tammy Hall said. “I hope they require various degrees. I know they will. I would hope they will. But is it our place to tell them they have to? I don’t believe it is. I think it’s degrading to those libraries.”
Hall’s motion was supported by commission chair Robyn Scribner and commissioners Tom Burnett and Carmen Cuthbertson — all of whom were appointed by Gov. Greg Gianforte — as well as state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. Opposing the elimination of the graduate degree standard were vice chair Peggy Taylor, another Gianforte appointee, and Brian Rossmann, who was named to the commission in June by Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. Rossmann noted at the start of Wednesday’s meeting that he is the only commission member who holds a master’s degree in library science.
Of the eight libraries that the standard applies to, only one is not in compliance: Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library. Trustees at the library, which has been beleaguered by culture war disputes in recent years, voted last year to hire Ashley Cummins as its director, despite her lack of a graduate degree. ImagineIF subsequently lost its state certification and, according to the Flathead Beacon, roughly $35,000 in annual state funding. Cummins announced her resignation this month — the third director to leave ImagineIF since 2021 — and shared her experiences with the state library commission Wednesday in support of eliminating the requirement.
“I was being billed as an uneducated, inexperienced, backwoods book-burning bigot,” Cummins said, referencing the backlash on social media and elsewhere to her hiring. “Library professionals that I have previously presented to at library conferences or worked with on collaborative projects were calling for my resignation before I ever stepped foot into the director’s office. It was a completely humiliating and totally dehumanizing experience.”
Cuthbertson, one of the five commissioners to vote for repealing the standard, also serves as a trustee at ImagineIF. Anticipating pushback on perceived ethical grounds, she told fellow commissioners that she consulted with Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, State Librarian Jennie Stapp and others and “came to the conclusion that my situation does not present a conflict of interest.” In a memo read aloud by Scribner, Juras supported Cuthbertson’s position, writing that she “does not have any private or personal interest” that would preclude her from voting on the standard.
The Kalispell library and its ongoing challenges were a recurring thread in the commission’s debate. ImagineIF trustee David Ingram voiced his support for striking the standard during public comment, arguing that the broad swath of Montana libraries are “allowed to hire a director as they see fit” while those in high-cost, high-growth areas are expected to navigate additional hurdles. Meanwhile, individuals who spoke in defense of the standard framed its elimination as a decision of statewide consequence made in the interests of a single community.
“I know for a fact you don’t want the Bozeman Library Board setting the standards for Kalispell,” said Bozeman Public Library Director Susan Gregory, “and we expect to have that sort of respect.”
Gregory added that Montanans expect their accountants, physicians and attorneys to meet certain educational benchmarks and that removing a similar standard for library directors sends the message that “librarianship is not a profession that needs a professional course of study or license.” Vice chair Taylor reiterated the sentiment ahead of the commission’s official vote, stating that as a licensed teacher, “I can’t lower standards for education, that’s just not in me to do.”
Hall’s motion to eliminate the graduate degree requirement passed 5-2. The commission’s draft rules will now be sent to the secretary of state’s office pending final adoption, and the public can continue to comment on them for 30 days.
On Wednesday, the commission also rejected a motion to hire a public information officer for the Montana State Library — a proposal that Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office had recommended and encouraged the commission to approve. In debating the proposal, Burnett said he was generally opposed to the hiring of more state employees, a position echoed by Arntzen, Cuthbertson and Hall. Arntzen further voiced a reluctance to take action on the proposal until the commission could see a job description and a detailed explanation of how the position would be funded.
“I need to see more things before we grow a government agency that’s very small at this point, and I need to see the budget that’s going to be directed toward it,” Arntzen said, adding that she felt the motion was putting “the cart before the horse.”
Several opponents also questioned whether public messaging would be better left to the individual directors of various library programs, with Cuthbertson suggesting that they lean on the governor’s own public information staff to disseminate press releases. But those supportive of hiring a PIO argued that existing staffers aren’t necessarily trained in dealing with the public and the media, and having an employee dedicated to such responsibilities would be a greater use of state resources. Jennifer Birnel, director of the state library’s Montana Memory Project, told commissioners her current duties simply don’t afford her the time to broadly promote her work to the public.
“I feel like this is really important for our agency in more than one way to have somebody help us message and send through the proper channels those press releases and that kind of information about the work that we’re doing,” Birnel said.
The commission briefly discussed postponing action on the PIO proposal until its December meeting. However, Hall said nothing would change her “very deep, philosophical opposition,” and the commission voted 4-3 against adding the position.
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