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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York

Library Laws and Regulations

As New York State Education Corporations libraries are subject to a wide range of federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations. While trustees cannot be expected to understand all the details of every pertinent law, they should be familiar enough with the major legal issues to be assured that their library is always in compliance. Boards are strongly advised to solicit the assistance of their public library system and seek the advice of legal counsel well versed in education and municipal law. It is important however, for every trustee to understand the legal foundation of their library and the extent and limitations of the board of trustees’ authority.

Public libraries in New York State receive a charter from the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York and are registered with the Education Department. The charter gives the library a corporate existence. The basic powers and duties of all library boards of trustees are defined; Education Law § 226. This law provides fundamental rules of conduct for the Board and details important powers such as the right to hold and control property and hire staff. A library's “registration” demonstrates compliance with Education Department Regulations Title 8 New York Codes, Rules and Regulations (NYCRR) § 90.2;(Minimum Standards). A library must maintain its registration to receive local and state public funding.

Other pertinent New York State Education Laws and Regulations include:

Education Law:

Commissioner's Regulations:

All public and association libraries are subject to various parts of the Education Law, Labor Law, Public Officers Law and the Not-for-Profit Corporation Law (including select portions of the Non-Profit Revitalization Act), as well as numerous other New York State laws governing the conduct of corporations, both public and private; a compelling reason for the Library to retain knowledgeable legal counsel.

Public libraries, those considered to be municipal, school district or special legislative district libraries, are also subject to several additional laws, regulations and policies designed to protect the public interest.  Most notable of these include:

  • Civil Service Law  (Job titles, examinations, due process)
  • General Municipal Law (Bidding and Procurement; Conflicts of Interest)
  • Labor Law (Hour & Wage, Safety and “Wicks Law”)
  • Public Officers Law  (Indemnification, Open Meetings, Oath of Office & FOIL)
  • NY State Comptroller’s Policies and Procedures (Accounting standards, investments, etc.)

The New York State Library provides an up-to-date summary of excerpts from New York State Law and Regulations of the Commissioner of Education pertaining to libraries, library systems, trustees and librarians. The New York Library Association also provides an excellent (though now a bit dated) compilation of the laws, regulations and pertinent legal opinions affecting the public libraries in New York State.

Legal Structure

There are four types of public libraries in New York State: association, municipal, school district, and special legislative district. Trustees and community leaders are quite often confused about the legal structure of their community library and the laws that govern them. Considering the fact that each of these library types has several variations, it is critical for all associated with the governance of the library to clearly understand their particular configuration. 

An association library is a private corporation established by the members of the association. It contracts with a unit of local government to provide library service to the residents of that jurisdiction. In legal terms, this contract may be written, oral or implied; but it always exists. Though association libraries are private not-for-profit education corporations and not subject to some of the laws and restrictions of true public libraries, they are generally supported by public funds and must always keep transparency and accountability in mind as they make decisions. In addition to Education Law such libraries are subject to some aspects of the New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation Law.

municipal library is formed either by a vote of the governing body of a municipality (village, town, city, or county) or by a public referendum to serve the residents of the municipality. The library is an independent corporate entity and not dependent upon the municipal government. However, the board of trustees is appointed by the municipality, which is responsible for the appropriate funding of the library. The library is subject to all the laws applicable to public institutions in the state.

school district public library is organized to serve the residents who live within the boundaries of a given school district (hence the name). Typically the library board is elected by the district residents. The library and the library board are independent of the school district and the school board. However, the school district is responsible for the collection of taxes and for the issuance of municipal bonds for construction on the library’s behalf. 

The separation of powers between local boards of education and school district library boards is detailed in Education Law § 260 (7)-(11).

special legislative district library is created by a special act of the State Legislature and a local public vote to serve all or part of one or more municipalities or districts as defined by its enabling legislation. Each of these libraries is somewhat unique but all are considered “public” insofar as adherence to state law.

Tax exempt status: Every association library should obtain federal tax-exempt status under Section 501(c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code. This exemption allows the library to avoid federal tax liability and also to be eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts. A library that has such an exemption is required to file Form 990 annually with the Internal Revenue Service

The Form 990 functions in place of a federal income tax return for the exempt organization, and there are large financial penalties for late filing or failure to file. Failure to file three years in a row will result in the revocation of the library’s 501(c) (3) status. Federal law requires that the library's completed Form 990 must be on file at the library and available for public inspection upon request. In addition to the federal tax exemption, each library should also obtain a state sales tax exemption certificate.

Public libraries (municipal, school district and special legislative district) are, by definition, a government entity under IRS code, and therefore tax exempt and not 501(c) (3) corporations.  However, public libraries may receive a confirmation of tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service to use with grant makers and businesses. 

Transparency: As noted in the chapter on Board Organization, each library board is required by the Open Meetings Law and Education Law §260a to conduct its business in public with only a few very limited exceptions.  All municipal, school district and special legislative district libraries must also conform to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
Although association libraries do not fall under the provisions of this law, they are wise to consider such a policy since they are generally supported by public funds and are often subject to public scrutiny.  Your community expects transparency.

Every library board is also required to approve and file an annual State Report with the New York State Library detailing library activities and finances. Compliance with the state established minimum standards is also reviewed in this annual report. Failure to file such a report in a timely fashion can lead to the loss of state and local funding and ultimately to the closure of the library.
The Board of Regents has the statutory authority and responsibility to establish minimum standards of service for libraries in New York State (Education Law 254).  By Education Department Regulations (8 NYCRR) § 90.2, the Commissioner of Education has established minimum standards for public and association libraries. The Board of Regents adopted amendments that update the minimum standards in July 2018.  All public and association libraries are required to comply with the updated standards by January 1, 2021. 

All these standards must be addressed in the context of the library’s long range plan of service.

All public and association libraries are required to have and to share online with their communities:

  1. Written bylaws of the board of trustees; reviewed and re-approved at least every five years. * Also see standard 11.
  2. A community-based, board-approved, written long range plan of service developed by the board and staff.  * Also see standard 11.
  3. A board-approved written annual report to the community on the library’s progress in meeting its mission, goals and objectives.  * Also see standard 11.
  4. Written policies for the operation of the library, reviewed at least every five years.  * Also see standard 11.
  5. An annual, board-approved budget designed to address community needs as defined in the long range plan.  * Also see standard 11.

In addition, each public and association library is also required to:

  1. Periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the library's programs, services and collections.
  2. Maintain hours of service according to a schedule based on population served.
  3. Maintain a facility which meets community needs, as outlined in the library’s long range plan; including adequate space, lighting, shelving, power and data infrastructure, and a public restroom.
  4. Provide programming to address community needs.
  5. Provide a circulation system that facilitates access to the local library   collection and other library catalogs as well as providing equipment, technology, and internet connectivity to address community needs and facilitate access to information.
  6. Provide access to current library information in print and online to facilitate the community’s understanding of library services, operations and governance. Information provided online shall include items 1-5.
  7. Employ a paid director with qualifications based on population served.  The minimum education qualifications for library director as established in Commissioner’s Regulation § 90.8 are as follows:
Chartered Population Education Qualification

2,500 - 4,999

Two years of college study

5,000 - 7,499

Bachelor's degree


Master's degree in Library Science (MLS) and NYS public librarian’s professional certificate

  1. Provide library staff with annual technology training appropriate to their   position, in order to address community needs.
  2. Establish and maintain partnerships with educational, cultural or community organizations which will enable the library to address the community’s needs; as outlined in the library’s long-range plan of service.

A library in New York State must meet these Minimum Standards in order to be registered to receive public funds. The library board is ultimately responsible for ensuring these minimum standards are met. It should be noted that many of these standards are based on a board’s analysis of community needs. For advice on how to assess community needs please see the Planning & Evaluation Chapter.

In addition, NYS General Municipal Law § 30 requires each public library to file an annual report of financial transactions with the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC).  

Related Documents and Policies

  • Annual Report to the Community
  • Library Charter/Enabling Legislation
  • Long Range/Strategic Plan
  • Public Access to Records (FOIL) Policy