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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State (2023 Edition)

Content from the latest edition of the Trustee Handbook.

Board Development

Library boards are groups of volunteers working together to create a quality public library to meet the needs of their community. The Board needs to deliberately develop itself into a dynamic, high-performing team through education, self-assessment and active recruitment. Your community deserves no less.

Trustee Education

Trustees must learn and grow during their entire tenure on the Board, developing an ever-deepening awareness of the affairs of their own library and an appreciation and understanding of other libraries and library organizations. The public library is a multifaceted organization functioning in a complex world.

Though the first critical step in the learning process is the orientation of a new trustee, education cannot cease once a person has reached the board table. Board meetings can be an excellent forum for continuing education. Many boards set aside time at every meeting for a presentation or discussion of some aspect of the library's work or programs. Such a session might include a training webinar, an overview of a staff member's work responsibilities, a presentation by a representative of the public library system or simply a few minutes of philosophical discussion and reflection on the role and purpose of the library. 

Please note, as of January 1, 2023, all public and association library trustees are required to take at least two hours of continuing education annually. For more information, visit the New York State Library’s website on this requirement. On this site you will find a list of pre-approved trustee education providers. Attending trustee education offerings from these providers will count towards your required education each year. 

Trustees should seek out educational opportunities through their Library Director available from their public library system, an organization that is a pre-approved trustee education provider. Understanding the context in which your library operates and reviewing the roles and responsibilities of trustees, while having the opportunity to network with other trustees regionally, will greatly enhance your value as a local library trustee.  

There is an extensive body of literature on trusteeship and board development, as well as public library operation and management. A small sampling is included in this Handbook. Trustees should also ask the Library Director to let them know about articles or books in all fields that may be helpful to an understanding of the library's affairs. The New York State Library has numerous webinars focused on trustee issues and there is now a companion web series tied to this resource, the Trustee Handbook Book Club that may be useful to you.  

Workshops, conferences and webinars provide an excellent opportunity for continuing education, both from the program content itself and from the opportunity to meet and share experiences and ideas with other trustees. In addition to your public library system’s trustee education offerings, the annual New York Library Association Conference offers an excellent opportunity to learn about new developments, programs, and activities across the state. The Library Trustees Association Section of the New York Library Association always offers a special package of trustee-oriented programs within the NYLA conference. On a national level, United for Libraries offers a program track for trustees at the annual ALA Conference as well. All of the organizations listed above are also pre-approved trustee education providers. 

Outside the library field, there are many organizations concerned with non-profit administration and management. BoardSource and the National Council on Nonprofits are especially helpful and complement the governance of library organizations. When seeking education from these non-library focused sources, keep in mind the specific laws and regulations for public and association libraries discussed in this handbook. Please note, these organizations are not approved providers of trustee education in New York State.    

Financial constraints or the perception of public disapproval make some boards reluctant to approve dues, registration fees and travel expenses for continuing education. However, these expenses are essential to keep libraries alive and vibrant through a better-informed and more effective Board and staff. Every library should have a written policy regarding staff and board training and budget sufficient funds each year to ensure that both the library board and the library staff can take full advantage of educational opportunities and remain aware of new trends and best practices in the library world.

Effective and knowledgeable trustees undergo a constant process of growth and learning. Attending board meetings and voting on current questions is not enough. Continuing education, for trustees as well as staff, represents an important investment in the library's future and demonstrates good stewardship of the organization by the Board.

Board Evaluation

A healthy Board will make the time to evaluate their own performance. This is an opportunity, just as the evaluation of the Library Director’s performance is an opportunity, to celebrate what is going well and to find ways to course correct when something could be going better. The Board should evaluate themselves against the duties and responsibilities found in this Handbook as well as the library’s Charter, bylaws, policies and procedures and strategic plans. Is the Board moving the library forward? Are board operations streamlined? Is there additional education or support trustees need to feel confident and comfortable in their roles as public library trustees? Plan an annual retreat or special meeting to discuss these questions and plan your next steps at a broader level than you may have time to do in your monthly meetings. Your Board can use the sample board evaluation tools available in the Resources section at the end of this Chapter. 

A note about board retreats and the Open Meetings Law: As per opinions issued by the Committee on Open Government, the oversight body of Open Meetings Law, “…there is no distinction between a meeting and a work session; when a work session is held, a public body has the same obligations in terms of notice, openness, and the ability to conduct executive sessions as in the case of regular meetings. Since the Open Meetings Law applies equally to work sessions and regular meetings, confusion might be eliminated by referring to each as "meetings", rather than distinguishing them in a manner that is artificial.” However, attendance by a quorum of a board at a scheduled trustee education session at a public library system or other pre-approved trustee education provider would not fall under this law.”

Recruitment of Trustees

Every library deserves a Board that reflects its community’s demographics that also brings a variety of skills and perspectives to the table. Therefore, an important part of every library trustee's job is to be on the lookout for potential new board members who can help keep the library and the Board strong and move it confidently into the future. 

While the trustees of all municipal, school district and special/consolidated legislative district libraries, as well as a growing number of association libraries, are elected by the public or appointed by an elected municipal body, most association libraries in New York still appoint their own board members and therefore have direct influence over the seating of new board members. However, even in an elected or appointed trustee institution, sitting trustees can help potential candidates connect with the opportunity to serve on the Board and demystify the process to get on the ballot or to be considered for appointment. Trustees should seek out and encourage qualified candidates for open positions who can complement the Board’s strengths or fill a gap in the current Board’s expertise. In the case of appointed boards, it is the sitting Board’s responsibility to advocate for candidates that best reflect the needs of the community. 

It is essential that Board composition reflects the ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity of the community. 

A clear, generic trustee job description (such as found in the earlier chapter on Trustee Duties and Responsibilities) should always be available for interested persons and the news media. The process by which a member of the community becomes a library trustee should also be clearly explained on the library’s website. 

When a potential trustee has been identified, they can be invited to Board meetings to learn more about the library's governance and provided with information, perhaps even this Handbook, to help them understand the scope of duties and responsibilities called for. 

The most important qualification for a library trustee is a strong and genuine belief in public libraries and their mission in the community as centers for information, recreation, culture and lifelong education. Good library trustees are also good library patrons. A candidate must also be willing to devote appropriate time and effort to carrying out the duties and responsibilities of trusteeship. These duties will include regular attendance at board meetings, committee service and activities, visibility in the community on behalf of the library, and learning about the library and the social, legal and political context in which it exists.

Related Policies and Documents:

  • Code of Ethics/Conduct
  • Trustee Education Policy