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Rural Montana libraries remain positive after withdrawal from national organization

Book at Bridger Public Library
Posted at 9:39 AM, Sep 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-29 11:39:34-04

CARBON COUNTY — Back in July, the Montana State Library Commission voted 5-1 to withdraw from the American Library Association (ALA), citing concerning social media posts from the national nonprofit’s president.

That decision left many concerned over Montana's rural libraries that previously looked to the ALA for both guidance and grants.

In a town as small as Bridger, finding activities to do can sometimes be challenging. This is one reason the local library sees so many visitors.

“(The library is) awesome. My grandsons love it," said Becky Blais, a Bridger resident, on Tuesday. “It’s important to have those resources, and we love it. Absolutely love it. And the programs. Love the people there."

Becky Blais
Becky Blais

This tends to be the case in small towns across Montana. Local public libraries, like the Red Lodge Carnegie Library, become a go-to.

"In a small library, you connect with people in a very personal way. You get to know them and you know their reading habits," said Jodie Moore, the director of the Red Lodge Carnegie Library, on Tuesday. "I think the connections we’re able to make in a small library are really, very deep and meaningful."

For Moore, being a part of the library means preserving it's history and ensuring future growth.

"We have been here since 1920. We are a Carnegie library, which is a meaningful thing because it really feels like you’re a part of history. And to be able to have maintained this presence in the community for over 100 years is so special," Moore said. "It’s special because libraries have changed a lot during that time. We’re a lot noisier than we used to be."

Jodie Moore
Jodie Moore

Out in Bridger, the public library also got its start in the early 1900s. The library's director, Krystal Zentner, said it's an essential part of the community.

“We get quite a few people. Probably 15-20 (visitors per day). We do a lot more of community resource helping," Zentner said on Tuesday. “Part of what’s important about having a library in Bridger is that we actually have a lot of county access that is only on this side of the county. They use us quite a bit, the county does. The burn permits, any health stuff. We had COVID tests at one time so that people wouldn’t have to leave this side of the valley."

Bridger Public Library
Bridger Public Library

And of course, the library sees many visitors searching for a new book to read.

But all of that requires funding, and one potential source just went away. According to the Montana Free Press, 23 Montana libraries in the last two years have received nearly a quarter-million dollars in grants from the American Library Association. But in July, the Montana State Library Commission voted to withdraw from the ALA, a nonprofit membership network across the country.

“Basically they’re a resource," Zentner said. "They would be like any kind of membership where you become a member and then they give you access to their information."

Krystal Zentner
Krystal Zentner

But Zentner said the withdrawal shouldn’t sound any alarms.

“I’m not really sure that withdrawing from a national organization that has that help is a good idea. I just really don’t believe that, in the state of Montana, we’re going to be affected one way or another,” Zentner said. "But here in this state, we have a great Montana State Library and Montana State Librarian and they’re the way to go.”

Zentner has faith in the Montana State Library.

“The staff at the state library and the way they help and the way they are structured so that they can actually provide information to each individual library, the membership in ALA I don’t think affects the Bridger library," Zentner said. “I think the Montana State Library is very important to Bridger’s library. It’s extremely helpful to me and the other libraries in the state. I’m not really sure that ALA really affects the Bridger Library.”

Back in Red Lodge, the town’s rural library has been a community staple for more than 100 years, and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Red Lodge Carnegie Library
Red Lodge Carnegie Library

"We are still such an important part of the community," Moore said. "Being able to watch that over time and see it play out is really special."

To read the original story from Montana Free Press on the state's decision to withdraw, click here.