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Public Library District Toolkit: Strategies to Assure your Library’s Legal and Financial Stability

Getting Started 

First and foremost your library must go through a strategic planning process that is open to the public and follows the simple strategy defined by the State Library in order to meet the Minimum Standards required for every public library in New York. After you have gone through that process you may have determined that it is in the best interest of your community and your institution to seek a more stable financial and political foundation. In that case you should review the following guidelines.

Readiness Checklist - Assessing your chances of success

1. Is there 100% commitment from the entire board of trustees and library administration?

The process for creating a public library district or for gaining public approval for a library funding proposition requires much effort that cannot entirely be delegated by a board of trustees. Board members must be actively engaged in the process by participating in public forums to explain the rationale for the change, advocating for the new district or funding proposition at every opportunity, and supporting the process through board level decisions. Any ambivalence on the part of even one or two trustees will be recognized by the community and diminish chances for a successful campaign. If the board votes to proceed, every trustee must honor the collective authority of that decision and be fully engaged and supportive. It is not enough to simply cast a vote to proceed; trustees must fully understand the process, implications and be willing to become fully engaged. The library director will play a central role not only in the district process but in the management of the new library going forward. They are the public face of the library and their attitude will greatly influence public perception. Are they committed and ready for such a challenge?

2. Is there a compelling case statement for why people should vote "yes" to create the district and/or fund the library?

In order for people to vote in favor of a proposition to create a library district or fund a library, they need to have compelling reasons to do so. Before deciding to proceed with a public budget vote, a library board should list the potential consequences of a negative or a positive outcome of an election. The library board should then ask whether a strong case can be made to the public based on either one of these outcomes. For example, if a library is facing closure if a funding proposition should fail or if a library can clearly state service and/or facility enhancements to be achieved by a positive outcome it has a strong case to present. Conversely, a library's case may not be as strong if the funding proposition will merely retain the status quo.

3. Is there any data to help determine whether the community is likely to support the proposition?

Though no one can predict with certainty the outcome of any open election, there may be data that provides some solid clues. For example: How has the community rated the library's services in recent public surveys? Have there been any surveys formal or otherwise that directly posed the question "Would you support a proposition to create and fund a public library district in our area?" Are there any controversial issues involving the library that may have an influence on a potential referendum to create and fund a public library district? Are the staff and Friends Group supportive of the proposition? Does the library administration/board have a working relationship with elected officials? What percentage of library users are registered to vote? Are there any organized anti-tax groups or other organizations within the community that may mount an effort against the library proposition? It is important to rely on data and objective analysis in formulating the answers to these questions. A general feeling about something is usually not reliable.

4. Have funds been budgeted to support the effort?

The budget for the creation of a public library district can vary greatly depending on individual circumstances. Potential costs may include: legal counsel; outside consultants, including marketing or public relations expertise; creation, printing and distribution of campaign materials; placement of ads in the local media; and running the local election to create the district. Though libraries can avoid some of these costs, it will require a greater level of work on the part of trustees and volunteers. Since no public funds can be used to advocate for the proposition, it will be necessary to identify nonpublic funds to support that effort. Funding from a library's Friends Groupexternal link opens in a new window campaign committeeexternal link opens in a new window , and targeted fundraising efforts for the purpose of the campaign are most often used for this effort.

5. Can local elected and appointed officials be counted on to support or remain neutral regarding the effort?

Well before embarking on the process to create a public library district or to place a funding proposition on the ballot, the library board should meet with municipal and/or school district officials representing affected areas to inform them on the library's plans and to request support for the effort. Though it may be possible to move forward without support from local officials, cooperation and coordination nearly always lead to success. Should there be opposition the library board must endeavor to inform and educate all parties regarding the benefits to the community.

If the library is currently receiving an appropriation from a municipality or school district, it is important to maintain good relations in the event that the library must depend on the municipality or school district to continue financial support until the library is able to collect taxes resulting from the public budget vote or in the event that the library budget proposition is defeated.

6. Does the library have a good public relations “footprint”?

Libraries that routinely communicate only with library cardholders are missing a broad swath of resident voters who will have the right to vote on the initiative. A deliberate and honest review of public relations efforts should be conducted to assess the library's reach in person, in print, online (i.e. via their e-newsletter and social media), and through word-of-mouth. If the library’s efforts in this area are weak, time, energy and funding will need to be devoted to build it up to have a strong platform from which to launch campaign messaging.

7. Are library patrons registered to vote?

Do not assume that library patrons are registered to vote. Library patrons are the most likely to vote yes to stabilize the future of their library. Ensure they are civically prepared by being registered to vote.

Public Library Expense Checklist

“Re-chartering definitely increased the library's reach and ability to serve the community. The board made some large budget referendums early on to increase staffing and public programming. One of the early benefits was increasing the library's hours.”

Caitlin Johnson, Director, Schuylerville Public Library

Public library districts are independent from any municipality or school district, except for the collection of taxes and, in some instances, the issuance of municipal bonds. The library board of trustees has sole responsibility, fiduciary and otherwise, to ensure that the library remains viable. In making the transition to a public library district, library trustees, working in concert with their library director, must be sure to account for the true expenses involved in running a library and work to ensure these mission critical budget lines are secured through voter directed tax support. Some of these expenses may have been previously paid as in-kind support to the library by its sponsoring municipality or other agency. When establishing the initial budget for a public library district, it is critical to include all of the expenses that the library will face as an independent entity. Prior to establishing a budget for a new school district public library or a special legislative district public library, the board of trustees should determine which expenses will be covered directly or in-kind by a municipality or school district. Though there is no legal basis that would require a municipality to cover the expenses of a special legislative district public library or continue to provide in-kind services, several do so as a community service.

Though the following excerpt from an Opinion of the State Comptroller indicates that certain financial services related to school district public libraries must be provided without charge by the School District, (Education Law 259(1)external link opens in a new window), it is strongly recommended that the board of trustees of a new school district or joint school district public library appoint a Library Treasurer and be prepared to budget for these services.

A municipal or school district treasurer with custody of library monies must perform those services which are incidental to holding and disbursing funds. This includes maintenance of a bank account for the monies, investment of the monies as authorized by the library trustees, payroll preparation and incidental accounting functions. There is no authority to charge the library for the cost of such services. (Op. Compt. 86-54, August 19, 1986).

A full discussion of the Role of the Public Library Treasurer may be found in the Handbook for Public Library Trustees.

The following checklist is provided as a guide to the real expenses normally involved in running a public library. Please be aware that such a list is a “moving target” and will evolve over time.

Financial Recordkeeping

  • Appoint a paid Treasurer who is not a Library Trustee.
  • Bookkeeping/financial accounts: maintaining the library's financial records; managing all accounts receivable and payable, including issuance of invoices, checks, and preparation reports and investments.
  • Annual independent financial audit or review.
  • Payroll: issuing paychecks; withholding; keeping records.
  • Filing appropriate forms with federal and State governments.

Human Resources

  • Managing staff hiring processes.
  • Administering personnel policies and ensuring compliance with federal and State labor laws.
  • Tracking employee time banks, i.e., vacation, sick leave, personal leave, etc.
  • Dealing with Civil Service.
  • Dealing with employee unions: negotiation of contracts, handling grievances, etc.
  • Handling employee benefits: health insurance, workers' compensation, unemployment claims, retirement accounts.


  • Coverage for library building(s), contents and cybersecurity.
  • Liability insurance to protect against personal injury claims.
  • Disability and Workers Compensation.
  • Directors and Officers Liability insurance.
  • Bonding for employees with access to the library’s finances.

Professional Services

  • Legal Representation:
    • To handle claims against the library and/or board of trustees;
    • For advice on handling “Freedom of Information” requests;
    • For advice on sensitive personnel and financial matters;
    • To interpret and advise about laws pertaining to the operation of public libraries;
    • To review library policies to ensure compliance with all applicable laws, i.e. meeting room policies, first amendment issues, etc.
  • IT Support
  • Program/Service/Project Evaluation Consultant

Buildings and Grounds

  • Rent/mortgage/bond repayment
  • Snow removal, grass cutting, landscaping
  • Routine maintenance
  • Security
  • Major renovations and additions
  • Emergency repairs
  • Cleaning and custodial supplies
  • Health and Safety equipment

Library Materials

  • Books
  • Media
  • Periodicals
  • eResources/Digital Collections
  • Other nonprint materials (i.e. The Library of Things - tool lending, seed libraries, etc.)

Library Staff Salaries and Benefits

  • Administration (Director, etc.)
  • Departmental staff
  • Custodial staff
  • Health insurance for current and retired employees
  • Retirement contributions
  • Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA)
  • Mandated leave benefits
  • Tax deferred savings plans
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

Library Programming for Adults, Children, and Young Adults

Travel and Training

  • State mandated training/compliance (i.e. sexual harassment prevention training, trustee education)
  • Staff and trustee attendance at conferences.
  • Attendance at training workshops, meetings, etc.

Technology & Equipment

  • Computers
  • Software and software upgrades
  • Copiers and Fax machines
  • Printers
  • Ink and toner
  • Automobiles, delivery trucks
  • other


  • Telephone
  • Gas and electric
  • Broadband internet

Public Relations

  • Paid Media
  • Website Development
  • PR materials (i.e. newsletters (print and electronic); flyers promoting the library and programs; social media ads)
  • Graphics


  • Cost of annual election
  • Community surveys
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)/Disaster Preparation

Education and Advocacy Campaigns

Regardless of its organizational structure, any library seeking a public vote on any issue, including its budget, should conduct an educational and/or advocacy campaign before the vote. This will ensure that the public has a full understanding of the rationale behind the proposition(s) and the reasons for supporting it. The differences between an educational campaign and an advocacy campaign are summarized below. A library's timeline for a public referendum should allow sufficient time to organize and conduct appropriate educational and advocacy campaigns.

Preparation is Key

The process of running a campaign to secure a positive vote on a public library budget referendum should begin well in advance of the vote and should be well thought out and organized. The campaign should involve both an educational and an advocacy component. Information on these campaigns can be found below.

”We were prepared ahead of time. We picked a nice guy in the community with name recognition to be on stand-by to send a letter-to-the-editor should we need him to. He wasn’t a political figure, just a well-known person in the community whom everyone respected. We also made sure all our communication about the 414 was scripted, so no one was shooting from the hip. Library staff were able to provide basic information about the vote, but if someone had a lot of questions, they were sent to the director.”

Patti Haar, Retired Director, Patterson Library

Educational Campaigns

The purpose of an educational campaign is to ensure that the public - not just library users - understand the facts involved in a referendum. As noted in the original “From Awareness to Fundingexternal link opens in a new window ” report, a voter’s willingness to support increased library funding is not driven, or limited, by library use. The campaign might include the following:

  • Information on the library’s website
  • A press release
  • Speaking engagements
  • Newsletter articles (print and email) and social media posts
  • Printing and distribution of flyers, ads, and other information

Materials should highlight the potential cost per average homeowner or family if the vote passes, how the additional funds will benefit the community, and what will happen if the vote fails. Educational campaigns should not encourage people to vote one way or the other on a proposition, but simply provide them with the facts necessary to make an informed decision. A library can use public tax money on an educational campaign. For good ideas on educational campaigns, talk to contacts at your public library system, from other public libraries and school districts. One tool to consider before launching an organized educational campaign is a “Q&A” document that anticipates difficult questions that may be posed during the campaign. (See below.)

Frontline staff of the library should be briefed on campaign materials and be introduced to the available informational pieces they can provide to residents who may have questions about the campaign. Staff time should not be spent on advocacy campaign activities, but it is perfectly reasonable, if not essential, for them to be well versed in the facts of the campaign and aware of educational campaign materials.

The board will want to brainstorm the names of leaders in the community, both formal and informal, to reach out to early on in the campaign to share information. Key stakeholders such as elected, municipal, business, and social service leaders as well as other well-respected members of the community can be very helpful to the campaign if they have the facts up front.

Campaign Q&A Documents

Before launching an organized educational campaign, library boards should consider creating a “Q&A” document that anticipates typical and difficult questions that may be posed by the community in response to the public referendum. The library board or the committee responsible for overseeing the educational campaign should brainstorm questions that may be posed during the campaign and develop well thought out responses. The process of developing difficult questions will also help identify any negative reaction that the community may have toward the library proposition and developing responses will prepare the library board and campaign committee to respond in a logical manner. Some library boards have found it helpful to first prepare a Q&A document that will be used “in-house” by the library board and staff and another shorter, “public-facing” document that can be distributed to the public. Ask your public library system for examples of Q&A documents other member libraries have successfully used to get started.

Some of the questions that library boards will develop are unique to their communities. However, many will be similar to those faced by other libraries during their campaigns. Some real questions faced by libraries include:

  • “How will my taxes be impacted if this proposition passes?”
  • “Why can’t those who use the library pay for it instead of taxing everyone?”
  • “Why can’t the library just use volunteers to operate?”
  • “Why can’t the library just seek private donations instead of relying on taxes?”

Be advised that the examples below are directed to their community in anticipation of their particular circumstances. You are advised to customize your materials likewise. Sample Campaign Q&A documents include:

Advocacy Campaigns

The purpose of an advocacy campaign is to influence voters to either vote in favor of or in opposition to a ballot proposition. A library cannot use public tax money on an advocacy campaign. It is best if a separate group using private funding conducts the advocacy effort. A library's existing Friends Groupexternal link opens in a new window may take on this responsibility. However, in some cases, an ad-hoc citizens group may conduct advocacy effortsexternal link opens in a new window. That group might include people in the community who are passionate about the library and are willing to donate funds and their time to influence the outcome of the vote. Advocacy campaigns might make use of the following:

  • Flyers and lawn signs
  • Newspaper ads
  • Letters to the editor
  • Voter identification
  • Postcards and phone calls to prospective voters
  • Speaking engagements
  • Other measures to urge people to vote in favor of a ballot proposition

A word about messaging in a campaign: In addition to the very straightforward information about how much this initiative will cost per household and the return on investment provided by the library, voters want something to believe in. The campaign should include stories from library users whose lives have been positively influenced by the library - from a student who has made the connection between their access to programs and services at the library and their success at school to a job seeker who produced their resume thanks to help from library staff to the senior on a fixed income who relies on the library for socialization and popular reading material - to the mom who was able to feed their kids over the summer thanks to the lunch program at the library to those who fundamentally believe in the right to access trusted information for an informed citizenry - real people from the community telling their story helps users and nonusers alike make the connection with the American Library Association’s Core Values of Librarianship and the intrinsic value of the library to the community for the future.

Understanding Roles and Responsibilities

In every campaign, it is important for stakeholders to have a clear understanding of responsibilities and roles. Here is a typical list of participants and potential roles for a library educational and advocacy campaign:

Library Board

Retains ultimate responsibility for the overall effort. Hires legal counsel, and other expertise as necessary and appoints a steering committee.

Steering Committee

Should include members of the library board, the library director, and influential people within the community who are supportive of the library. Works closely with public library system consultants or consultants hired by the board of trustees and provides direction to the educational and advocacy campaigns.

Library Director

Serves as a member of the steering committee and works to ensure that required information from the library is available. Assists in public presentations to provide educational information, development of educational materials, and other activities as needed.

Library Staff

Is informed of facts of the campaign and empowered to refer residents with questions to educational materials provided or directly to the director and board. Library staff should not be involved with advocacy campaign activities on paid time.

Library Advocacy Group

This may be the library's Friends Group or a separately organized ad-hoc group consisting of dedicated volunteers who will carry out activities associated with the advocacy campaign. This group carries out activities such as identifying library supporters throughout the proposed library service area and contacting them individually to request their positive vote on election day; calling people a day or two prior to the election to remind them to vote; driving people to and from the polling place on the day of the vote; identifying potential opposition to the library vote and taking steps approved by the steering committee to counter any opposition.

Win or Lose

Whether or not your vote passes it is critical to thank all those involved in the campaign, including the voters who came out to help shape the future of their community. If your vote is successful it is easy to just move on to the next item on the “to do list” and if the vote does not pass, the emotional toll may encourage those involved to put their heads down and focus on something else. Either way it is important to take the time to debrief about the campaign - what worked well? What would you do differently the next time around? There will be a “next time” at some point and experience has shown that you will be grateful you took the time to analyze the strengths and challenges of the campaign and to archive campaign materials for reference.