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One of the first buildings visible driving south into Roberts on Highway 212 is the school — a K-12 building with a gym, cafeteria and library. You won’t see another library in town.

Roberts, population of about 360, is one of several Montana communities without a public library. Schools across the state are left to fill the gap, but often have meager funding to do so.

Any state money that trickles down to school libraries is allocated by individual school districts, and many districts earmark money for new materials or programs. But amid competing demands, many do not.

In a Montana Office of Public Instruction document explaining school funding, libraries aren't mentioned once.

Grants are a lifeline for libraries. At Roberts, combined with book fair funding, they’ve helped Myrna Lastusky overhaul the library, which serves about 120 students. She started last year at the school, and the position, like many at small schools, is part time. She found that her job had as much to do with preparing the shelves as preparing students.

Books weren’t cataloged using a bar code system; they still had cards slipped into pouches inside books’ front covers with due dates stamped on.

Through a mix of grants and other nontraditional funding, Roberts now uses a bar-code system to track and catalog books.

The school's previous librarian, who’d been in the position for about 40 years, “probably has forgotten more than I’ll ever know,” Lastusky said. But much of the organization of the library was locked away in her head.

“Kids would say, 'do you have this book,' and I didn’t know,” Lastusky said.

She also “aggressively weeded” outdated materials, especially targeting nonfiction books containing irrelevant or outdated information. The previous librarian had a reluctance to discard outdated materials in case funding for replacements didn’t come through.

"These weren't classics," she said. 

Most recently, Roberts was one of six Montana schools that received a grant from bestselling author James Patterson for $1,000. Schools in Glasgow, Polson, Bozeman and Great Falls got grants, plus McKinley Elementary in Billings. There were more than 25,000 applications for the grants nationwide. About 500 schools received a grant.

School District 2, as a larger district, has more buying power for materials, said Sandstone Librarian Lynde Roberts, who also co-chairs the Montana Library Association's School Library Division. The Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools helps to distribute grants and private donations. The district actually increased library funding from $5 per student to $8 per student this year, she said.

“Otherwise, it’s just book fairs and grants,” she said. “We’re a fortunate school.”

Not every Billings elementary school has a full-time librarian, and many schools across the state don’t have certified librarians. While Lastusky has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction, she doesn’t meet librarian certification requirements in Montana.

Librarians typically work as a supplement to classroom teachers; they can prepare resources for a class project, provide student instruction on how to use sources and technology, and bolster reading programs. 

Many of the books at Roberts are coded to a reading level, so students can select an appropriate book. Lastusky wants to go beyond comprehension and standards.

"My goal is always to instill in them a love for literature," Lastusky said. "It's about finding the right book and the right fit."

Roberts has a couple shelves for community members to check out books, and the room is occasionally used for public meetings. It's sometimes available after school, but that can depend on finding a staff member to oversee meetings. 

Lastusky is trying to advertise book fairs more to make people more aware about the library.

“I really want it to be a community resource,” Lastusky said. “It hasn’t been as much as I hoped.”

In an education era focused on test scores, she worries sparking passion for reading can get lost in the shuffle.

“I really believe that if you read and you enjoy it, you’re going to become a better reader,” she said — and a better student.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.