Part II: The Search for Identity

From its birth, the officers and members of MPLA attempted to establish a logical rationale for a Mountain-Plains region and a regional library association to serve it. Early on, the probing and questioning centered on geography. The committee that wrote the temporary constitution left the geographic jurisdiction of the association in the hands of the Executive Board. In February 1949, President Esterquest suggested to the board that "for the time being" they define the MPLA area as the seven states that participated in the Estes Park meeting, but not to think in terms of hard-and-fast state boundaries and also to provide for easy withdrawal and easy joining of the association.

But was there some geographical logic that made the seven member states a defensible region? And what was a region anyway? A rural sociologist from Montana State College, Carl F. Kraenzel, a speaker at the first conference, addressed some of these issues.

"In this area we speak of the Great Plains region of America; the Northern Great Plains region, including parts of Canada; the Missouri Basin Region . . . The Department of Agriculture for many years has had regional offices for its various research and administrative services. So have many other federal agencies.

"I think of these as functional and non-exploitive forces driving toward an understanding and a building up of the area into some semblance of regional consciousness and regional dynamics. . . . [But I] reject the implications of sectionalism and provincialism that the concept might ordinarily convey."

Geographically, he describes the region as

"a mid-continental region, conditioned by climate and resources. It is sub-humid and thinly populated. It is largely an agricultural region with little industry, financially tributary to Eastern capital. . . . The patterns of community organization suitable to the eastern part of the country fail in many respects to serve us in this region adequately. Thin population plus great distances make the costs of applying county library service, for example, prohibitive [and make] securing sufficient support for any kind of library service . . . difficult indeed."

In a 1956 article in the MPLA Bulletin, Eugene Wilson, director of libraries, University of Colorado, raised again the question of regionality:

"Despite the ease with which [MPLA was established], certain fundamental questions deserve study by MPLA members. These questions include what is a region? Why have a regional organization? What is the nature of the region defined by the MPLA constitution? And what is its future?"

A partial answer to these questions appeared in an editorial in the Quarterly, following the signing by President Eisenhower of the Library Services Act on June 19, 1956, which was designed "to stimulate the states and local communities to increase library services to rural Americans." This new federal program, observed editor Miriam McNally, is "permeating every part of the cooperative library network [through] which our profession serves the people of our seven states." She further noted:

"The tools of this cooperation are ready for this unprecedented opportunity. The Mountain-Plains Library Association, forged out of our own human and library resources to meet our peculiar regional needs, gives strength, cohesiveness and focus to any library project the region encompasses. The Bibliographical Center for Research, Rocky Mountain Region, sponsored by the Association, is a practical demonstration through which all types and sizes of libraries and the people they serve can share in combined library benefits not possible to any one of them alone."

On the tenth anniversary of MPLA's founding, President Lora Crouch reported that the Executive Board had again discussed the validity of the present MPLA area as a "natural region" and wondered if the area covered by BCR would be more logical. Missouri, Arizona and Saskatchewan were suggested as possible members. She also concluded: "We reach our tenth birthday this year. We are growing up and it is time we took a long hard look at what we have done and make some decisions as to what we want to do in the future."

By 1959, the focus of the discussion of MPLA's raison d'etre shifted from geography to the question posed by Pres. Milton Abrams: "Why are we associated?" He wondered "if there is any justification for the association other than to provide a meeting place for the exchange of ideas, and if we do meet for this purpose do we have any problems peculiar to the area? He saw the distances, small pockets of population, lack of taxable wealth, the relative youth of some of the states and a lack of book resources as unifying elements and concluded: "A professional association ought to exist wherever a professional group has a community of problems. We have the people and the problems in the region we call the Mountain and Plains."

This questioning led to a limited-focus annual conference in Denver in 1960. There were no programs and no exhibits. It was time to "get down to work to determine what we are, why we are, and what we might become." "It never was intended by anyone setting up this type of meeting in Denver to overtly kill MPLA," said an editorial in the Quarterly. "Every organization needs to evaluate itself from time to time. It was generally agreed that our time had come." Pres. Abrams and the Executive Board prepared six study questions and appointed committees to generate responses to guide discussion. The first asked the fundamental question, "Does the MPLA now consist of state associations and individual librarians whose interests and problems provide a substantial basis for regional association?"

The committee report recognized 1) a sparse and scattered population, 2) great distances between population centers, 3) a relatively low level of support for libraries, and 4) youthful libraries working pretty much on a minimal program as both the common bonds that held the association together and, at the same time, created the difficulties of functioning as a regional organization. They concluded, however, that the distances, low budgets for out-of-state travel, and sometimes poor travel connections, should not prohibit effective meetings and recommended no change in the geographical makeup of MPLA. They also agreed that the interests of state associations and individual librarians provided a justifiable basis for regional association.

Two former presidents, Jerome Cushman (1951-52) and Frank Lundy (1950-51), addressed the validity and direction of MPLA in pro and con articles in the Spring 1960 Quarterly as a prelude to the discussions to be held at the conference later in the year.

Cushman recalled that

"MPLA began with high hopes. Its aim at bringing librarians with common problems together though separated by thousands of square miles, was bold and imaginative. Did something go wrong? In the light of our re-examination of the total position of MPLA it might be assumed that a great deal is wrong. In fact some of the thinking propounds the question, why MPLA at all? Talk like 'organization for vacation excuse,' 'programming for the district level,' 'no planning and sense of direction' are accusations which have been made since the beginning of the Association.

"In criticizing MPLA sometimes one loses sight of the original purpose for its organization. The wide expanse of territory coupled with a sparsely settled population presented library problems which could be served better on a regional basis. That the crossing of state lines has had little or no success does not obviate the fact that a regional pattern of library development, if effected, makes the most sense. . . . While it is true progress has been compromisingly slow it would come to an immediate and final halt were there no organization even thinking about its problems."

Cushman saw programming, research, and legislation as the proper work of MPLA. The programming, however, "must cease to try to please everybody but must aim at a professional and high level of uniqueness." The research should focus scientifically and accurately on regional resources and problems. And legislation should "bring to fruition the idea and practice of truly regional library service."

Lundy, while insisting that he is not "con" MPLA, having been involved from the original conception and organization, he is "con" "MPLA in the form and substance in which I have come to know it during its first full decade." He reminded his readers that in October 1950 he had circulated a mimeographed statement in which he said:

Our state associations here in the Mountain-Plains area are limited in size and scope, . . . [but] they can be immensely helpful at the state, county, and city levels of government in securing favorable library legislation and in aiding local librarians to do a good job. State organizations in our area, however, frequently do not have the money or the manpower to develop the kind of program that would be most helpful in raising professional standards and improving local job performance and in promoting library projects that are not quite national in scope, but much broader than state boundaries. The activities of the Denver Bibliographical Center and the program of the Northern Great Plains Library Council are examples of what I mean.

He is convinced that a regional association can offer more worthwhile programming than can the smaller state associations. But it is undesirable for a regional association to duplicate what is already being done commendably on the local and state levels "at an even greater expense of time and effort and money. "It is a little silly to drive a thousand miles to a regional conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming," he said, "only to find a good piece of the program given over to a workshop on book mending. This sort of thing is done better in almost every way at the state and local level." He concludes:

"A regional library association, including our own, can survive and do good work if it has regional reasons for being, and pursues its work vigorously within a regional framework. . . . The regional association cannot be just another 'state' association, even though it may hope to be a little bigger and better, but boring its clientele with the same bill of fare. . . . I would also suggest . . . that invitational meetings of officers, committee members, and other professional leaders may be more important to the proper functioning of the regional association than the customary annual camp meetings open to all who can find available transportation. . . . A general conference should grow out of the need by the membership to hear reports and consider recommendations made by the smaller groups assigned to do the spade work. When a full conference develops out of special work done in this manner, it may then not be inappropriate to attach a general session with an outside speaker, and perhaps even a square dance, barbecue supper, and a ballad singer, all three, to end the event upon a relaxed and happy note! We have tended to go at the business the other way around and have in some measure failed to get down to the serious work which confronts us!"

Since the annual meetings were the most visible function of MPLA, their format, purpose, and programming were often the center of the association's search for identity. Originally, the regional conferences were held separately from the state conferences, except for an occasional joint conference with a member state. Between 1961 and 1968, the pattern was changed to biennial meetings, with officers serving two-year terms. In the off year of 1962, the association held a leadership conference at the University of Denver with the program consisting of meetings of the Executive Board, a business meeting, a BCR Trustees meeting, and a couple of program sessions. The rotating annual joint conference with the eleven member states was a later development, although Pres. H. Dean Stallings had suggested this as early as 1953.

MPLA also held a Leadership Conference on Inter-Library Cooperation for May 23-24, 1973, at the Peaceful Valley Lodge and Guest Ranch in Lyons, Colorado, with 75 librarians and lay people invited. Working papers were commissioned on the topics of "The Cohesive and Divisive Forces in the MPLA Region," Behavioral and Legal Implications for Cooperation," "Networking," "Manpower for Regional Libraries," and "What of the Future?" The authors attended the conference to lead discussion of their topics. The focus of the conference was on library cooperation, but out of it came a call for MPLA to appoint task forces to "continue the study of regional interlibrary needs and the role of MPLA in meeting those needs."

By the MPLA 25th anniversary conference in Cheyenne in November 1974, the task forces had addressed many of the issues from the Peaceful Valley conference, and presented their findings at the conference. Acting on their recommendation, the Executive Board appointed A Master Plan Committee, which presented their findings to the members at a "sometimes heated" conference at Lake Tahoe.

The plan called for 1) establishing the office of Executive Secretary; 2) changing the fiscal structure, including raising dues, having states collect MPLA dues, asking State Library Agencies and state library associations for financial support, increasing subscriptions to the MPLA Quarterly, and exploring various methods of fund raising; 3) establishing relationships with the region and with ALA; 4) providing and coordinating continuing education programs for the members; 5) coordinating resources in the region, such as supporting BCR; 6) and improving communication and publications, primarily through the MPLA Quarterly, whose content should be regional in nature. After much discussion and deliberation, the plan was finally approved by a vote of 97 to 19. Don Trottier moved a substitute motion to disband MPLA and to have each of the eight member states appoint one representative to a Mountain Plains Program Committee, which would then appoint a conference manager. Thus MPLA would become only a loosely structured regional conference-sponsoring organization. The motion was defeated.

A member survey in 1975 found that members wanted conference programs to be "practical, substantive and professional with more scope for informal discussion and interaction rather than inner-directedness about MPLA itself." The largest number, 81%, approved the proposal to alternate Denver conventions with joint MPLA/state association meetings elsewhere. Since 1977, MPLA has held joint conferences with its member state associations and discontinued separate annual conferences.

The question of what MPLA is and should be has risen less frequently in recent years. Most members seem comfortable with the joint conferences with member states, the Newsletter, and other membership benefits. And the sections and committees work together in conference program planning with the member state associations and on other issues of a regional nature that may arise from time to time.

But as recently as September 1997, the Board of Directors again raised the issue of what MPLA should be and do in the context of ways to increase membership, itself an issue raised repeatedly over the years. Past President Judy Kulp stressed that "if you don't hit the needs of the people out there, you can just forget the slickest brochure, the greatest speakers; you can forget the whole thing. It's the incredible workload, the lack of staff, and the lack of time that keeps people away. It's a whole new world. MPLA really needs to look at the new world we're in." She also discouraged a major membership drive "without knowing what we have to offer and knowing that we offer it to people who want it."

Now as MPLA begins its second fifty years on the eve of a new millennium with new technological marvels that promise to make our present technologies seem primitive and antiquated, Pres. Kathlyn Lundgren's 1974 reminder seems even more timely: "MPLA is changing . . . We are not living in the past, but learning from it. . . . When will this process of change be complete? Probably never. MPLA can no more afford to be static than we as individuals can remain the same."

So after fifty years our organizational search for identity continues as it must. Only by meeting the changing needs of its members as they face the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly changing profession can MPLA continue to serve the librarians and libraries in this vast mid-continental region of mountains and plans stretching from the Missouri to the Sierras and Canada to Mexico. For MPLA's identity exists primarily in the minds and hearts of its members, in the person-to-person associations we have developed, and in our desire to "act collectively," which according to Henry David Thoreau, "is the spirit of our institutions."

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