MLA from the mountains to the prairies

Brief History of the Montana Library Association

The Beginning

Montana librarians and others interested in libraries met in Missoula on May 17, 1906. Plans were formulated to establish a state library organization, which the group decided would be of great benefit to those working in libraries as well as to the people of the state. Miss Gertrude Buckhous of Missoula presided at that temporary meeting. A committee was named to draft a constitution. Granville Stuart of Butte was elected President.

The group met again in Butte on December 26 and 27, 1906, and adopted a constitution, becoming the Montana State Library Association.

From the beginning, the Association was active in pursuing and promoting legislation to improve library service in Montana. One of the Association’s first acts was to adopt a resolution favoring the presentation of a bill to the Legislature asking that the tax for public libraries be increased from 1 to 2 mills.

The sixth meeting of the Association was held in 1911 in Great Falls in December (“annual” meetings did not begin until 1912). There were not more than a dozen in attendance. Miss Clara Baldwin of the Minnesota State Library Commission was guest speaker. (The Association allowed $30.00 from the treasury toward her expenses). The group visited the studio of Charles M. Russell, where the librarians were greeted by the artist and Mrs. Russell.

Through the efforts of the Association, a bill authorizing the establishment of county libraries was enacted by the Montana Legislature in 1915. For many years thereafter, the Association worked to encourage counties to establish libraries. Librarians also began to lobby for legislation authorizing the creation of a State Library Commission. They finally succeeded in getting such a bill passed in 1929, and the Montana State Library Extension Commission (SLEC) was established, although no appropriation was granted. The members of the first Commission were: Miss M. Gertrude Buckhous, Chair (Librarian, University of Montana), Miss Elizabeth Ireland (State Superintendent of Public Instruction), Miss Clara Main, Lewistown (appointed by the Governor). For a number of years after, the Association subsidized the library development efforts of the State Library Commission with Association funds.

The Depression Years

The 20th annual meeting was held at the Parmly Billings Memorial Library on October 21 and 22, 1930. There were at least 32 in attendance. It was believed to be the largest conference attendance in the history of the Association. A committee was appointed to look into financing the employment of an expert for a year to create interest and help organize county libraries. The group felt this was needed because, although the county library law was passed in 1915, only 13 of the 58 counties had so far taken advantage of its provisions.

During the depression years, the economic problems facing libraries of the state were discussed at annual meetings and suggestions were made as to means of eliminating nonessentials. The Association pursued legislation concerning regional libraries, certification of librarians, and funding of the SLEC. Association members hoped that co-sponsorship (with the SLEC) of a statewide WPA library project would spur library development in Montana. The Association drafted a “Five Point Plan for Better and More Widespread Library Service for Montana.” The plan included the following five points:

  • An adequate appropriate for the SLEC (which is without funds) to provide a trained director to organize, direct, and coordinate, and extend library service in Montana.
  • State aid for books for the Travelling Library administered by the SLEC (and utilization of federal aid).
  • Enactment of a regional library law, to make possible consolidation of two or more counties to support a library to serve the area.
  • Enactment of a certification law to professionalize all librarians in the state and to provide trained librarians for all positions requiring professional services.
  • Cooperation among Montana libraries in making their book resources easily and quickly available.

However, the Association soon became disillusioned with the WPA project and withdrew its sponsorship because it was not being directed by trained people.

In 1938, the Pacific Northwest Library Association met for the first time in joint conference with the Montana Library Association at Glacier Park. In 1939, to help keep librarians of the state in touch with each other, the Association decided to issue a periodical library newsletter — the “MSLA Bulletin” — giving notices of meetings, book news, and other information of interest to librarians of the state.

The War Years

In 1941, the Association took on the task of compiling and funding the publication of a complete directory of libraries in the state.

A cedar gavel (a gift of Hertzberg Craftsman) was presented to the Association by Miss Margaret Fulmer, librarian of the Parmly Billings Memorial Library. The gavel was made from “historical wood” furnished by Mr. O.D. O’Donnell, President of the Board of Trustees of the Parmly Billings Memorial Library. The gavel was first used to open the 29th annual meeting of the Association in the Kalispell Carnegie Library on May 4, 1942. This gavel is still used today to call to order the annual meetings of the Association.

The 30th annual meeting was held in Butte on May 3-4, 1943. There were 24 registrants (out of 44 active members). The meeting had originally been scheduled for Hardin but was changed to Butte due to travel problems and rationing. Program titles reflected concerns of the war era: “Outstanding Books about the War,” “Organization of an Army Camp Library,” “The Army Takes Over the Campus,” and “The Place of Latin America in the New World Order.”

At the 1944 annual meeting, the Association endorsed the resolution adopted by the South Dakota Library Association to request ALA to make the necessary changes which would permit each state having a library association to have at least one vote on the ALA Council. It was reported that 47 of the 48 states had some agency for state library extension and all but one — Montana — had some appropriation for their state library agency. There was a discussion of federal aid — should it be accepted? Montana librarians were not in favor of federal control of libraries; however, there was consensus that if there was anything to be gained in getting aid, the Association should look into it.

A Governor’s Committee on Reorganization recommended that, since no budget had ever been provided for it, the SLEC should be abolished. However, the Association rallied its forces, retained the SLEC, and secured a small appropriation. Soon after, publication of the “MSLA Bulletin” was transferred to SLEC and renamed “Montana Libraries.”

The Fifties

By the 1950s, the Board of Directors decided it needed to draw up a manual of procedure. The Board also decided that the Association could no longer operate without a budget and found it necessary to write a manual of conference procedures. The Association supported and worked on regional library planning and the establishment of regional libraries in Montana. Also the machinery was set in motion to allow formation of sections (divisions) in response to a petition from school libraries and library instructors. The Association continued to support SLEC financially by approving an expenditure to help the SLEC print “Montana Libraries.”

There was a traveling conference and library survey in 1952. Two different groups visited libraries in Conrad, Shelby, Chester, Havre, Malta, Glasgow, Wolf Point, Billings, Forsyth, Miles City, Terry, Glendive, and Circle — ending up in Sidney for the conference.

The Association continued to lobby for an adequate budget for SLEC, to seek a suitable appropriation from the Montana Legislature to reimburse Seattle Public Library for giving service to the blind in Montana, and to support SLEC legislation proposing a move for its headquarters from Missoula to Helena. There were 82 in attendance at the 40th conference in Missoula (1953). Nine high school librarians attended, the largest number yet to attend a conference.

The Sixties

During the 1960s, the Trustees and Friends Division and the Public Library Division were established. The College & Research Libraries Division also formed, later becoming the Academic and Special Libraries Division (ASLD). The Association set a long-term goal of seeking a Governor’s Conference on Libraries. On January 8, 1966, the Board of Directors met for the first time at the new Montana State Library headquarters in Helena.

The Association established an awards and honors program in the 1960s to recognize those who served, supported, and promoted libraries in Montana. The slate of awards and honors has expanded over the years.

A tri-state conference with Wyoming and Idaho was held in Jackson, Wyoming in 1967. Several times during the 1970s there were attempts to undertake another tri-state conference with Wyoming and Idaho. These efforts did not succeed.

The Library Development Committee focused on rules and regulations associated with the Library Services and Construction Act. Montana’s Plan for Library Development was one of the first, if not the first, plans for a state involving all types of libraries. The committee also worked on standards for public libraries.

In the 1960s, the Association’s National Library Week (NLW) Committee was made permanent. Montana was nationally recognized several times in the Grolier Award competition as one of the state library associations with the best program for NLW. In 1967, Mrs. Leo Graybill became the first woman to serve as Chair of the NLW Committee. The Association continued to sponsor statewide NLW efforts through the 1970s.

The Seventies

In the 1970s, the Association began working for legislation establishing state aid for libraries. The Association hired Margaret (Maggie) Davis of Helena in 1975 as the Association’s first paid professional lobbyist.

Also during the 1970s, the Association undertook the necessary steps to become incorporated. Articles of Incorporation were adopted which established a Board of Directors consisting of President, Past President, Vice President, and Treasurer. The Association was incorporated as “Montana Library Association, Inc.” The bylaws were shortly amended to make division chairs members of the Board.

Montana’s first Governor’s Conference on Libraries was held October 18, 1971. The Association was a sponsor, along with Montana State Library and Montana Instructional Media Association (MIMA). The theme was “Expanding Horizons of Library Service.”

The Association’s Continuing Education Committee was established in the 1970s and the Academic and Special Libraries Division worked on the organization of a Union List of Serials. The Union List of Montana Serials was finally produced in 1981, using LSCA funds.

In 1978, the School Library Media Division (SLMD) was created from the consolidation of the Montana Association of School Libraries and the Montana Instructional Media Association. An Ad Hoc Committee on Children and Youth Services was established.

The Eighties

During the 1980s, the Board of Directors adopted recommendations of the Library Development Committee to restructure the Board and adopt other mechanisms to make the Association more responsive to the members. Interest groups were established. Offline was organized as an ad hoc special interest group concerned with computer technology in libraries. Mabel Brewer (Flathead County Library Director) became the fifth Montanan to receive an Honorary Life Membership in the Pacific Northwest Library Association for outstanding contributions to library service.

The Board of Directors allocated funds to send Trustees and Friends Division member Lawrence Maxwell to the American Library Trustee Association workshop in Minneapolis. Partly as a result, the Trustees and Friends Division produced a new Montana Trustee’s Manual. The Association also funded the printing of the standards produced by the Ad Hoc committee for the Revision of Montana Public Library Standards and supported the revision in school library standards.

Long-time Treasurer Helen Anderson resigned during the 1980s. The position of Treasurer was abolished and a paid position of “financial secretary” was established. Also during the 1980s, the Association was successful in enacting legislation expanding the size of the State Library Commission (SLC), altering its make up, and appropriating sufficient funds to provide direct state aid grants to all public libraries.

Montana’s ALA Councilor Glenda Bell won both the grand prize and a second prize in the 1983 Huron Fund Sweepstakes which provided transportation, registration, and hotel rooms for both the annual conference in Los Angeles and Midwinter in San Francisco. (This was a fundraising effort to aid ALA’s 50 East Huron Fund). In 1983, the Association adopted a new logo and affiliated with the Mountain Plains Library Association (MPLA). A joint conference was held with MPLA in Billings in 1989.

Looking Toward the Next Century

In 1990, Offline sponsored a retreat at Fairmont Hot Springs, featuring programs about modems, bulletin board systems, electronic mail, computer conferencing, distance learning, and classroom applications. The SLMD presented 18 programs for school librarians at the Montana Education Association convention in 1990.

After careful study, the Board of Directors voted in 1992 to dissolve the Continuing Education Fund. An ad hoc committee was appointed to review the Association’s legislative and lobbying processes.

A Long Range Planning Task Force was also appointed. The charge to the task force was: develop a mission statement and basic goals for the Association and develop an organizational structure to carry out the evolving mission and goals of the Association. In 1993, the Board of Directors adopted the mission statement and goals proposed by the task force. After 18 months of work, the Long Range Planning Task Force recommendations were approved by the Board of Directors in 1994. In summary, the recommended changes dealt with the size of the Board, the process of nomination for MLA office, the establishment of a Council, the duties of the Administrative Assistant (formerly the Financial Secretary), the merger of the Trustees and Friends Division into the Public Library Division, the establishment of a Conference Planning Committee, and the reorganization of other committees.

The 21st Century

John Finn, President:

The 91st Annual Meeting was held April 24-27, 2004 in Bozeman. Greg Mortenson, Director of the Central Asia Institute was the Keynote Speaker at conference. He told an amazing story which prompted action by the membership to fund a school for girls in Afghanistan.   

It was a very busy year in the national library community. USA PATRIOT Act questions and concerns swirled around the news media. Montana’s constitutional commitment to a person’s privacy seemed interesting to those outside of the state. MLA leadership was quoted fairly frequently in national articles about libraries’ reactions to the Act.

After the retirement of long time Administrative Assistant Karen Hatcher, Debbi Kramer was hired as the Executive Director in October 2006.

Della Dubbe, President:

In 2008-09, we hired our first conference planners. After many years of discussion, Kathy Mora wrote the RFI, and Honore Bray, Judy Hart, Kathy Mora, and Della Dubbe interviewed the five applicants selected from their submitted RFP’s. Janelle and Mark Trowbridge were hired for $10,000 for a partial first year and stayed through 2013. Our 2009 conference was held in Kalispell at the new Hilton Garden Inn. We developed two new websites, one was developed for MLA and the other for the conference, by the Trowbridges. We also moved our MLA June Retreat from the church camp on the Boulder River south of Big Timber, where we had gone many years prior, to the more central location at Boulder Hot Springs in outside Boulder, MT.

Eva English, President:

During the summer retreat at Salish Kootenai College in 2009, the MLA board made the decision not to continue printing the handbook. It was decided to put all the handbook information online from this time forward. The board also began working to align discrepancies between the handbook and bylaws. The 2010 annual conference in Bozeman was the first conference that MLA utilized the help of conference planners, T & T Conference Planning.

Kim Crowley President:

In 2012 the MLA Board hired Ned Cooney to help establish a Strategic Plan.

STRATEGIC PLAN: The MLA board worked tirelessly to create the strategic plan under which we are now working.   Strategic Plan accomplishments to date include:

  • Reports and Minutes posted on MLA website
  • Strategic Plan on MLA website
  • Google Mail group created for MLA Board
  • Ad Hoc group formed to look at MLA “message”
  • Message written to be delivered at various meetings
  • MLA recruitment message delivered at various meetings
  • Planned special Saturday conference session for School members
  • MLA brochures updated
  • “Tag line” created and adopted by MLA Board
  • Strategic Plan shared at annual membership meeting
  • Committee Chairs and members aligned with strategic plan

Anne Kish, President:

In 2013, MLA truly made history in two regards. Representative Christy Clark, a Republican from Choteau, successfully carried a bill on behalf of MLA. The bill increased per capita, per square mile state aid to public libraries from approximately nine cents per Montanan to forty cents per Montanan. In the same year, MLA saw conference attendance climb to a record 400 registered attendees, largely due to a collaboration with the OPI to increase meaningful conference opportunities for Teacher Librarians.

Beth Boyson, President:

During my presidential year in 2014, the MLA Board hired a new conference planner after the departure of Janelle and Mark Trowbridge. Applications were received from all over the country. The decision to hire local Debbi Kramer was unanimous.

A resolution was passed at the annual conference by the membership: critical of federal government spying on ordinary Americans, calling for openness in it surveillance program and calling on “the public to support bills and other proposals that both secure and protect our rights to privacy, free expression, free association, a free and independent press, and promote a more open, transparent government.”

The group gave the Pat Williams Intellectual Freedom Award to the Billings Public School District 2 — for promoting intellectual freedom when a parent challenged<> the inclusion of “Absolutely True Diary” in the high school curriculum. The district held public hearings on the book, during which many students spoke in favor of retaining it and this is what the district ultimately decided to do.

Dawn Kingstad, President:

During my presidential year in 2016, the board revisited MLA Strategic Plan.  During the Board Retreat a facilitator from State Professional Development Center, Jane Rhodes, assisted the board with the review and revisions.  The Keynote Speaker for the 2016 MLA was Eric Atherton from Future Sync International and the topic was Meaningful Influence.  

Lisa Mecklenberg Jackson, President:

2017 and 2018 were rather unusual years for MLA as the same individual served a two-year Presidential term, likely an MLA first. Lisa Mecklenberg Jackson assumed the presidency in August 2016 as sitting MLA President Samantha Hines moved out of state. The theme of the 2017 MLA Conference was Advocacy: For Our Profession, Our Libraries, and Ourselves. The keynote speaker was Erica Findley and the author luncheon speaker was Keith McCafferty. The Cates fundraising event was a Geography Bee. In 2018, Lisa really got to work. The board passed 14 new policies designed to make the work of the association flow more smoothly. Policies, forms, and resolutions were all organized and placed on the MLA Website. A crew, spearheaded by MLA Executive Director Debbi Kramer, updated the MLA Handbook which hadn’t been done in years.  A new process for resolutions was put in place with the ALA Rep. discussing upcoming resolutions in the state librarians’ Website chats, then presenting them far ahead of the MLA annual conference meeting so folks would have time to think about them before voting on them at the conference. The theme of the 2018 MLA Conference was Big Skies, Library Highs, and Legal Ties. The keynote speaker was Montana Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker discussing the role of librarians in access to justice and the author luncheon speaker was Leslie Budewitz, a cozy mystery writer out of Bigfork, MT. The Cates fundraising event featured a rousing Librarian Talent Show! Continuing an idea brought forth in 2007, Lisa chose a “One Read” for the 2018 MLA Conference. It was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

Mary Anne Hansen, President

During 2019-2020, the MLA Board further investigated the purchase of conference planning software, an effort begun under Elizabeth Jonkel’s Presidency in looking ahead to Debbi Kramer’s retirement. We settled on Wild Apricot after learning more about PNLA’s experiences with it, which have been positive. also continued discussions of extended Debbi Kramer’s contract as Executive Director for another year in order give ourselves time to draft a position vacancy announcement for her replacement. Thank you, Deb! The big news of 2020, of  course, was the Covid pandemic, which led the cancellation of our 2020 MLA Annual Conference. The Fall Retreat was held virtually October 18-19, 2020, rather than at the long-time location of Chico Hot Springs. The Virtual Fall Retreat consisted of ASLD and PLD Division meetings, along with six programs and an evening social event via Zoom. Participants overwhelmingly agreed that the virtual retreat was a real success!

Gavin J. Woltjer, President:

The 2020-2021 presidency was both challenging and frustrating—but in the end very satisfying. As the pandemic gained force throughout the country, libraries—of all kinds—quickly changed service modalities to meet the needs of the community they serve. Some libraries closed their doors; some established curbside services to attempt to meet the needs of their patrons; and some libraries tried to maintain normalcy without closing their doors or instituting new service options. As the President of the Association, it soon became clear that one plan or course of action was not suitable for all types of libraries. So instead of offering advice on how to have libraries operate, I instead decided to focus on the individuals within libraries. In each of my bi-monthly messages to Association members, I tried to be confident in my peers’ abilities to do whatever was necessary for each of their communities. In essence, I used my voice to be the cheerleader for the profession. Taking this course of action, while important, ultimately led me to pivot my focus as the President. Before the pandemic, I had the goal of creating more diversity, inclusivity, and equity for all Association members. This goal was soon overshadowed by a new goal: keeping the Association financially solvent during this time. Through the incredible efforts of the MLA Board, Executive Director Debbi Kramer, and Megan Stark, the Association was able to offset many costs through grants, new partnerships, new revenue sources, and PPP availability. Without these secondary sources of monies, I am unsure what might have happened to the Association. Because of the pandemic, the Association held all conferences online. This was a mighty task to undertake as the Association had never previously held an online conference. Through the utmost aplomb and professionalism, ED Kramer was able to not only hold three conferences online, but was able to successfully navigate this new landscape while keeping costs low, increase participation, and design a template for future online offerings. The 2021 MLA Conference them “Stronger Together” was consistently showcased not only at the conference but also throughout the course of the year as different types of libraries and leaders collaborated together to meet challenges, share ideas, and serve their communities. The 2021 conference speakers were three women who have served or are currently serving as Montana Poets Laureate: Mandy Smoker, Melissa Kwansy, and Tami Haaland. ED Kramer’s contract was extended one-year. Incoming-President Kit Stephenson will spearhead searching for a Kramer’s replacement.

Montana Library Association is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. PO Box 823, Arlee, MT 59821

2024 Montana Library Association

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