Most of us understand that our public libraries in the United States are funded by tax dollars and staffed by trained librarians, who take care of the day-to-day tasks of running a library and planning for the future. But who has a say in library policy, budgeting, and the direction of a public library? That would be your library’s board of trustees, who ideally represent the community that your library serves (also known as stakeholders). Who they are and what they do for the community should be something that all citizens and library users are aware of because, while they might not work in your public library, they can have a big impact on how it is run.
What does a library board member member or trustee do?
I asked Cathy Johnson, board member of my hometown library Big Rapids Community Library, what she believes is the role of the library board, and she said: “A library board member is, at the core of the job, an advocate for the library and its mission.” What that encompasses can be anything and everything from creating policies for the library, deciding on capital improvements, determining budget, responding to community input (and challenges), hiring the library director who then oversees staff and implementation of library policies, and ensuring that the library’s mission is being accomplished.
The nuts and bolts of this will vary from library to library, and may depend on how your library works with your local government. But generally speaking, as a library board member or trustee, you can expect to attend one library board meeting per month (at minimum, but you might be required to attend other emergency meetings). You might want to brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order, and you have to be willing to understand how your local library functions. When I asked Tegan Beese, MLIS and Youth Services Consultant at the State Library of Iowa, what makes a good library board member, she responded: “It is important that they fully understand the library’s involvement in the community, that it’s more than just books.”
Libraries offer essential services including but not limited to technology access, internet, literacy programs for all ages, events and programming, community outreach, and circulating materials beyond books that include movies, tech, and even tools. It’s also important that you understand that library staff doesn’t just shelve books and check them in and out — they create and run events and develop programs to serve a wide range of community members. They must also be able to respond to the needs of the community, sometimes rather quickly (as in the case of COVID-19 impacting libraries very suddenly, requiring new policies to be written and implemented). Library board members need to understand not just the general role of libraries in today’s society, but they need to understand how their own individual libraries function, who they serve, and what programs they offer. Not every board member needs to be an expert, but they need to have a general awareness of what their library offers and be open to learning from the staff.
A good board member is also willing to do their research, follow the policies and bylaws set forth by the library board, and support equality and access for all — that last one may seem obvious, but it’s probably the most important point of all. An understanding of library law and finance might not be your strong suit, but many state libraries offer courses and symposiums that help board members get up to speed on important issues impacting libraries (anything from how state aid money can be used to whether or not your library can prohibit guns in their building!), so a willingness to attend such educational events and learn more is also an important quality in a potential board member. The American Library Association also has further tips and continuing education opportunities for those interested in getting involved in their library board.
Who can be a library board member or trustee? How do I get involved?
You understand the responsibilities, and now you want to get started. How do you go about becoming a board member? Anyone residing within the service area of their public library who meets the qualifications set forth by their local government can be considered for a position on their library board. The qualifications and process may differ according to the type of library your community has and how it’s set up to work with local government.
The first thing you’ll want to do is discern whether your public library is a city, county, or district library. That is something your library can tell you, if you’re not certain. I also recommend reading the minutes of your library board meetings, which by law must be publicly posted, usually on the library’s website. By perusing these minutes, you’ll get a sense for who is involved, what issues they discuss, and how meetings are structured. It might also help to attend a meeting (which are open to the public, by law), as long as you go with the purpose to listen and observe, and only weigh in when it is appropriate to do so. Meeting agendas are usually made available 24 hours in advance of a meeting, so you can see what is being discussed and when input from the general public is allowed.
Many libraries are tied to a city or county, and you may find applications to sit on a library board on their websites. A quick Google search of “library board application” and my current town brought me to the application on my city’s website. If you receive notices from your city or county, you might also notice open calls for library board position applications. Be aware that a library board has a set number of members, and term limits, so you might not be able to start right after applying — but filling out an application is a good place to start.
Some boards appoint members from the applications they receive throughout the year. Some board members must be elected. Some are appointed by your local government’s commission or supervisory board. Information about how your local library functions can be found online, or you can ask your local librarian. It might not be a fast process — I know someone who waited two years from applying to being appointed to the board — but it’s likely that if you make your interest known, you will be welcomed.
Why is getting involved with your library board important?
Getting involved in your library board is important because the system requires informed, passionate individuals who care about library services in order for the system to not just work, but thrive. Unfortunately, individuals who don’t understand the role and purpose of libraries or don’t care about the essential services that libraries provide can wreak a lot of havoc if they’re appointed to a library board. While some boards do have more power than others, library board members have a direct impact on how the library functions. Just look to Niles Public Library and the destructive, draconian measures their uninformed board has enacted, drastically slashing budgets and services at the expense of the people of Niles, Illinois. And sadly, Niles Public Library isn’t the only library to be gutted by an uncaring board. It can happen anywhere, which is why citizens should pay attention to what happens in their library board meetings, even if they aren’t sitting on the board.
“Serving as a member of a local board is something every citizen should consider,” says Johnson, who believes that doing so is a good way to give back to your community. But given what we’ve seen happen in Niles, I would argue that supporting and serving on your library board is essential for all book lovers who want to see their libraries succeed and flourish.