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Advocacy group forms in wake of library trustee decisions

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | February 11, 2022 12:00 AM

Responding to actions it says are threatening the quality of the ImagineIF Libraries system, a citizens group has formed to advocate for the future direction of the library.

The Flathead County Library Alliance, a group led by six steering committee members that includes about 160 members, announced its launch Thursday. Describing itself as nonpartisan and all-volunteer, the group says it was formed “due to the actions, words and behaviors” that are harming the library.

Organizer Laurel Ekern said the group formed when several members found themselves attending the library board and Flathead County Commissioner meetings advocating on behalf of the library.

“We’re a volunteer group of citizens that became concerned about what is happening in our community,” he said. “We wanted to convey that to the public, raise awareness and hold the trustees accountable.”

The ImagaineIF Libraries system has faced turmoil surrounding the board of trustees, including ongoing tensions between the board and library staff. Trustee board meetings have been standing-room capacity in recent months as trustees have voted on formal requests to remove two books from library shelves and sought to hire a new director after two previous library directors resigned amid growing tensions.

The library alliance says its mission is to hold library trustees accountable and ensure that the county commissioners appoint qualified individuals to the library board.

Ekern said she grew up using the library and now takes her two children there. She says there’s concern that the quality of the library is eroding, noting that it’s a key component of the community providing early literacy and other childhood programs, in addition to the books on its shelves.

“We have an excellent library that became even better when it became ImagineIF,” she said. “We’ve all gotten used to that and we don’t want it to go away.”

The alliance’s website includes two petitions directed at the county commissioners seeking accountability for the future operations of the library and also asking that well-qualified non-political trustees be appointed to the library board.

On the petition for accountability, the alliance lists several areas it would like addressed including increased funding for the library, larger library facilities that can accommodate the growing population of the county, hiring of appropriately trained staff, and that library trustees maintain a neutral role in decision making.

For the petition regarding trustee selection, the alliance asks that the commissioners “recruit and appoint a qualified resident who will focus on the future stability and integrity of the library” when the next board vacancy occurs.

Last month the library trustees approved hiring a new library director that does not meet state public library standards and thus will likely cost the library $35,000 in state funding as a result. The board approved a contract with Ashley Cummins, who is working to finish her bachelor’s degree, while Montana State Library standards require that the director of a library serving a community with a population of more than 25,000 people to have a master's of library science degree or equivalent to maintain certification.

Ekern says the group wants to ensure the future quality of the library.

“We’re a diverse group of people, but we’re all concerned about the library,” she said. “Some of us are concerned about censorship, some are concerned about the library budget being stagnant, we’re concerned about the new library director not setting us up for success.”

“We’re here to make sure the library is protected,” she said.

For more information on the library alliance, visit its website at www.fclibraryalliance.org

Features Editor Heidi Desch can be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com

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