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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York

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 group 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.

Trustees should seek out educational opportunities through their director from their public library system. 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 a number of webinars focused specifically on trustee issues.

In addition to statewide organizations such as the Library Trustees Association of New York State (LTA), the New York Library Association (NYLA) and regional public library system support, many American Library Association divisions such as the Public Library Association and Library Leadership and Management Association, as well as United for Libraries, offer extensive resources for trustee education. 

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.

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. The Library Trustees Association of New York State sponsors an Annual Trustee Institute and most public library systems offer workshops and seminars specifically aimed at trustees. 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 of New York State 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.

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 assure 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? There are sample board evaluation tools available in the Resources section at the end of this Chapter.

Recruitment of Trustees

While the trustees of all municipal, school district and special 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. Therefore, an important part of every association 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. A board should seek out and encourage qualified candidates who can complement board strengths or fill a gap in the current board’s expertise. It is essential that board composition reflect 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.

When a potential trustee has been identified, he or she can be invited to board meetings to learn more about the library's governance. It is also important to bring such people to the attention of appointing authorities if the library is dependent on them for new trustees.

What are the qualifications for a library trustee? The most important qualification 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

  • Continuing Education