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

Content from the latest edition of the Trustee Handbook.


The management and operation of a library are accomplished through a partnership among trustees, the Library Director, staff, and volunteers.

The Critical Partnership: Trustees and the Director

As the library's governing body (and the entity with ultimate accountability for the institution), the Board has the responsibility to hire a competent, professional, and qualified Library Director as the “CEO” (Chief Executive Officer) and then to regularly review and evaluate that person's performance in moving the library forward. Having hired a Library Director, the Board has an obligation to support the Library Director wholeheartedly within the context of the employment relationship. Good communication and cooperation between the Board and Library Director and an appreciation of the interdependency of each other's roles are prerequisites to a well-managed library.
It is critical for the Board to establish and maintain clear lines of communication with the Library Director. In general, the Board's directions and intentions are communicated to the Library Director through the President or through official actions at a Board meeting. Individual trustees should refrain from issuing specific instructions to the Library Director at board meetings and especially between meetings. Such individual directions are inconsistent with the concept of collective board authority, and a Library Director risks being caught between conflicting intentions, even among well-meaning trustees. 

Trustees and Staff

The day-to-day management of the library, including the management of staff, is the Library Director's responsibility. The Library Director is the only employee directly overseen by the Board. The Library Director is responsible for the management and supervision of all other library employees. Trustees have a responsibility to know the staff at a friendly but professional distance, to be cordial and supportive, and to promote goodwill. But they must approach staff relationships with a degree of caution. 

Soliciting input from staff regarding library operations as an individual trustee is inappropriate, as is suggesting training to a staff member, or asking them to do something for you, even if it is related to your board service. Astute awareness of the power dynamic between board members and staff is essential. You are not the average community member; you hold a position of authority in the institution. Misuse of that authority, even if you did not mean for your comment, request, or suggestion to be perceived as an abuse of power, can be detrimental to the chain of command and workplace culture of your library. Usurping the administrative prerogatives of the Library Director can only undermine that person's position and authority and ultimately lead to misunderstanding and conflict. (See the Appendix Working Together: Roles & Responsibilities Guidelines for helpful guidelines).

Board policies, including a “Whistleblower” policy as required by law, should clearly indicate the process for staff complaints and grievances, and the Board should never get involved in such activities outside of this process. Individual trustees must never address staff complaints and grievances; rather, they should refer the staff to the appropriate policy. If a grievance reaches the Board level, it is usually the responsibility of the Library Director to communicate the Board's decision back to the staff. Only in those cases where the grievance involves the Library Director should the Board communicate directly with the staff.

A trustee is part of the governing board of the library, while staff and volunteers report to the Library Director or other paid supervisor. While Education Law §226(7) specifically prohibits trustees from receiving compensation, some trustees may act as library volunteers, especially in small libraries. Likewise, libraries without an anti-nepotism policy often have trustees’ family members on staff. This can lead to an awkward situation for all involved. (State law only prohibits public Library Trustees from appointing their close relatives as “officers of the corporation,” i.e., Library Director, Treasurer, or Trustee.) Any trustee who pursues the role of volunteer or has a family member or friend on staff must be extremely sensitive to the potential conflicts of authority that may arise. It is best to avoid such situations whenever possible.

Appointment of Staff

Education Law §226(7) specifies that all personnel actions must be approved by the Board at a legal meeting. This does not suggest that the Board selects staff other than the director. It does mean that the Board creates all positions, establishes salaries, and formally appoints the staff on the recommendation of the director. In other words, the Director selects, the Board appoints.

Though the Board must ultimately approve all appointments, titles, and salaries, and so note these actions in their minutes, often simple staff appointments such as pages or part-time support staff cannot wait until the next Board meeting.  In such cases, retroactive appointments are commonly made. Likewise, public library boards will often approve an appointment “pending civil service approval” in an effort to streamline the sometimes awkward formalities of civil service rules.

Typically, the Board will review the credentials of candidates recommended for higher-level staff positions such as department head or assistant director in order to be familiar with the library’s leadership. This would also apply to the positions of Treasurer and District Clerk.

Selecting the Library Director

The most important responsibility of a library board is to select a qualified Library Director who can work effectively with the Board, professionally manage the organization and reflect the ideals of the institution and the community it serves. All libraries are required to comply with Education Department Regulations (8 NYCRR) §90.8 governing the minimum qualifications for Library Directors. Public libraries must also conform to the civil service rules for employment in their jurisdiction and in the State of New York. (See the Appendix Civil Service 101 for more information.)

When embarking on this process, it is appropriate for the Board to ask themselves a number of critical questions about the library, the Library Board and the type of leadership they require. Each of these should be considered in light of the library’s mission, long-range and strategic planning documents and recent assessments of community needs. Such questions might include:

  • What qualities do you value in your Library Director?
  • What are the most important skills your Library Director must possess?
  • What roles do you see the Library Director playing with the Board, the staff and the community?
  • What significant initiatives and challenges do you foresee for the Library in the next five years?
  • Do you prefer a well-experienced Library Director or are you willing to give bright new talent a chance?
  • Would you prefer (or not) a local resident?

All too often, library boards look for the easy way out, the simplest or quickest choice or the cheapest alternative rather than following a well-developed search process which gives the Board the best chance to find the right Library Director. Competent leadership of the library is essential for its efficient management and future success. Choosing an inadequate Library Director will result in more work for the Board and a disappointing library. Every library deserves a qualified Library Director who is respected by the Board and community and is appropriately compensated. 

Library Boards who are not required to hire through the civil service system should solicit candidates from a wide variety of sources to ensure a strong pool of applicants. Those who fall under NYS Civil Service Law are advised to contact their regional Civil Service Commission for guidance in the selection process. Talk to your library system for recommended best practices in the hiring and selection process along with help to post the position far and wide. Thoroughly evaluate resumes and hold additional interviews for good candidates. Ask tough questions but be certain to stick within the law. Check references and previous employers. Do a basic internet search on a candidate’s name. Lastly, negotiate a fair agreement for salary and benefits and put it in writing, in the form of a letter, memorandum or contract. Qualified professionals will expect no less.

In the event the Board finds itself without a Library Director during the search process, it is important to appoint a qualified interim/acting Director as soon as possible. If no one on staff is available, the Board is strongly advised to contact their public library system for assistance. The interim Director should not be a trustee unless they resign their position and are qualified for appointment. As per Education Department Regulations (8 NYCRR) §90.2, in no case should the Board take on the day-to-day management of the library. Please see the Hiring a Library Director appendix for more information. 

Performance Evaluation

In order to maintain clear communication and effective management, it is critical for the trustees to regularly evaluate the performance of the Library Director as well as the Board itself. There are several good reasons to conduct an annual performance review of both the Library Director and the Board. Among them:

  • The Library Director and Board are the co-leaders of the library. While each has distinct roles and responsibilities, neither can succeed without the other; 
  • A review provides the Library Director with formal feedback on their job performance;
  • A self-evaluation of the Board provides the trustees with regular feedback to help better support the group’s success;
  • The evaluation effort provides the Board with critical information about the operations and performance of the library and should be conducted in such a way to inform the evaluation of progress on the library’s long-range/strategic plan;
  • The evaluation process can be used to establish the goals and objectives of the library, as well as of the Library Director;
  • A meaningful evaluation process can link compensation for the Library Director to job performance;
  • A thoughtful evaluation can improve communication and provide motivation, direction and encouragement;
  • The process can be coordinated with the determination of community needs, thereby providing an important component of the library’s ongoing planning efforts; and
  • The formal evaluation process is necessary to properly document unsatisfactory performance.

It is essential that a written, reasonable, and up-to-date job description for the Library Director be in place as a benchmark. It is also important to mutually develop an annual performance plan with the Library Director. A Library Director Evaluation Policy can be a helpful tool that documents how the evaluation process takes place each year, who is involved in the process, what tools or resources are used, and serves as a consistent plan from one governing board to the next. 

The annual evaluation is the time when members of the Board and their chief executive focus on the important issues facing the library and evaluate how the Library Director and the Board are performing as a team. There are many sample evaluation forms available, but it is the process itself that is most important, not the form. To make the process more effective, consider the following tips:

  • Have an accurate and realistic job description for the director and board members in place;
  • Have a written agreement or contract stating the Library Director’s conditions of employment, salary and benefits, and the evaluation methodology;
  • Conduct a written evaluation of the critical aspects of the job by members of the Board or have the Library Director provide a detailed self-evaluation for board review and discussion;
  • Evaluate the Library Director’s performance against the goals and objectives of the Library Director’s performance plan as well as  the library’s long-range and strategic plans;
  • Make sure the entire Board participates in the evaluation process; and
  • Be open and honest and discuss the results face to face.


Personnel is a library's most important asset, and a board must consider its investment in staff salaries as a top priority. Fiduciary responsibility requires securing adequate funding to pay competitive salaries and benefits to its Library Director and staff. A library’s success is dependent upon the quality of customer service provided by library staff. You will want to plan accordingly to retain competent, qualified, customer service-focused staff. Use benchmarks such as the MIT Living Wage Calculator, salary levels of corresponding personnel in the local school district and nonprofits, as well as salary and benefit levels in equivalently sized libraries in your region.  Please note: Civil Service does not dictate salary levels. 

Continuing Education

No one is born an expert at their job. On the job learning, mentoring and continuing education opportunities are essential to an employee’s success and therefore the library’s success. The Board should adequately budget for continuing education for staff, including the ability for staff to attend educational opportunities on work time and accommodations to underwrite the travel costs to workshops and conferences. In addition, minimum standards for public libraries in New York require that all library personnel receive annual technology training. Therefore, it is recommended that at least 1% of the library’s operating budget should be invested in education for staff and trustees. A good library never stops learning.

Your First Responsibility

As a Trustee, it is sometimes necessary to remind yourself that your first responsibility is to the library and the community it serves. The role of employer may be a role to which many Trustees are unaccustomed, and it can sometimes seem easier to let an uncomfortable situation slide rather than face it head on. This is especially the case in small communities where Trustees and library staff may have been friends and neighbors for many years. An unwillingness to deal directly with difficult personnel issues will ultimately damage the library and its ability to provide the best service to the community. If a Library Director has truly demonstrated a continuing, documented inability to manage the library effectively, the Board must look for a new person who can do so rather than make excuses or run the library themselves.

But be advised that before the library begins any significant disciplinary action against an employee, they should first consult the library's legal counsel. The liability involved in personnel actions is significant if the process is not handled properly.

Related Policies and Documents:

  • Anti-Bullying
  • Anti-Nepotism
  • Attendance/Leave
  • Code of Conduct
  • Computer/Internet/Email/Social Media Use
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Continuing Education
  • Discipline/Termination
  • Equal Employment Opportunity
  • Evaluation Procedure
  • Grievance Procedure
  • Introductory Period
  • Jury Duty
  • Orientation for New Employees
  • Outside Employment 
  • Personnel Records Access
  • Recruitment/Hiring
  • Salary/Benefits
  • Sexual Harassment Prevention
  • Volunteers
  • Whistleblower Protection