June 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Montana School Librarians Fight to Keep Database Subscription

EH160628_EBSCO_MontanaMontana is pulling the plug on EBSCO database subscriptions that have been used statewide by libraries and maintained by the Montana State Library for more than 20 years. But a cadre of school librarians aren’t digesting this news quietly. Instead, eight of them in Billings, MT, have pushed back, asking state librarian Jennie Stapp to rethink the move.

“We implore you to consider the wide‐sweeping, negative impact this decision might have on our state’s libraries,” the librarians wrote in a letter to the Montana State Library Commission and the state librarian in May. “We hope you will choose to invest in our students’ future, for they are also the future of Montana.”

But a reversal in funding is “unlikely,” says Stapp, as the money for the databases is primarily gone.

“There won’t be any additional funding this biennium,” she says. “There could be an appropriation of funding from the Montana State Legislature to libraries, which could be left to the discretion of the Montana State Library Commission.” But Stapp adds that assigning those funds to database subscriptions is not high on the state library’s priority list.

The cuts stem from a decrease in Montana’s Coal Severance Tax which is collected from coal mining revenue in the state. These numbers have fluctuated wildly in recent years, notes Stapp. The Montana State Library received $630,000 from the tax in fiscal year 2011—but that has dropped to $269,000 for Fiscal Year 2017, she says.

A task force launched an eight-month study for the Montana State Library to look at what they should prioritize—and recommendations included cutting the databases based on its use and their price. “The task force told us we were not getting a good return on investment,” says Stapp.

Databases subscriptions, which will end August 31, aren’t the only thing on the chopping block that affect library services. Other cuts include a decrease in professional development, some of the funding for the Montana State Library’s Lifelong Learning programming, which includes early literacy workshops, as well as reductions in the budget for the Montana Memory Project, a collection of digital resources on the state’s history.

Stapp says although comments around ending database funding have been “mixed,” she’s heard from librarians who believe the decision to cancel them is the right one.

“Some school librarians have told me this is such a relief,” says Stapp. “That they had pushed databases for years, and no one used them.”

But part of the Common Core Learning Standards state that K–12 students understand more complex material as they complete their education. Digital databases have played a role helping educators find a wide variety of sources to support this requirement. Further, the school librarians in Billings say that the EBSCO databases are the most used at their schools.

“Specifically, the Academic Search Elite portal is most used,” says Brittany Alberson, one of two full-time school librarians at Billings West High School, by email. “In our opinion, this is because the database is the most comprehensive starting point for research. Additionally, because we are preparing our students to be lifelong library users, we as librarians have been very keen to teach our students how to effectively use the EBSCO databases, knowing that, because of the state funding of these databases, they were the most widespread throughout all types of libraries in our state.”

Alberson was one of the eight school librarians who sent the letter in May, requesting funding be returned to the databases. But she and the others, also note that databases are still available at many district high schools from LexisNexis, CQ Research, and JSTOR at Billings West High School, Skyview High School, and Senior High School, with a few additional databases scattered among the three schools as well. The schools fund these on their own.

However, the databases slated to be cut “are the most useful at this point because of their comprehensiveness and usability,” says Alberson. “Our students are familiar with them. The eleventh and twelfth graders are reliant upon them already.”

While Stapp hopes that some additional financial resources could arrive, these would go first to restore professional development and the Montana Memory Project—not the databases. Instead, the Montana State Library, with the help of suggestions from librarians, wants to curate a selection of free, online resource pages that could be pushed out to libraries.

“We’re hoping to put together a hackathon this summer where we would bring librarians together to identify really authoritative resources that all libraries could make use of,” says Stapp. “But we haven’t done any mapping yet of what that would look like.”


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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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  1. Thank you very much to Lauren and SLJ for an accurate and fair description of Montana’s difficult situation. Our state’s history of boom and bust reliance on natural resource revenue has played out yet again with the funding reductions that resulted in the budget decisions you described. Montana’s library community is known for its collaborative commitment to sharing resources across all library types in order to serve all of our citizens. I know that our library family will continue that commitment as we re-envision statewide library resources and services. Huge kudos go to Jennie Stapp, Montana State Librarian, for her leadership and commitment to transparent communication. Thanks again for sharing our story!

    Colet Bartow
    School Library Specialist, Montana Office of Public Instruction
    Chair, Montana State Library Commission