Skip to Main Content
New York State Library Logo

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

Lessons Learned: Advice from Libraries who have re-chartered 

Start with the understanding that “you don’t know what you don’t know”!

Ask for help from your Library System, the Division of Library Development, other libraries that have gone through the process. Seek experienced professional assistance with legal and financial issues. Don’t be penny wise when hiring outside consultants. Hire people who have done this before! Thoroughly review the resources available online, including this guide! If you do not understand something, ask again. Take the time and effort to understand the full process!

Don’t underestimate the budget!

All too often library boards underestimate or undersell the financial needs of managing a viable independent public library. The two main reasons:

  1. A perception that a “low” initial budget is appealing to the voters.
  2. Incomplete understanding of the true costs of managing the Library, it’s staff and its facilities. This is especially true for new libraries and municipal libraries who have relied on municipal services such as payroll management and snow plowing.

Though a minimal initial budget may seem like a good idea at the time, in every case reported, the Library later regretted this approach and cited their low “base” budget and the New York State Property Tax Cap as hindrances to not only excellence, but in some cases, keeping their heads above water.

Have a strong management team!

Many newly established libraries, especially those formerly affiliated with a municipality, are surprised at the level of administrative expertise needed to run the Library. They were not prepared. Growing your institution into a modern independent community service with a professionally managed staff and quality services and facilities requires many skills in addition to the knowledge of librarianship.

The Director is the CEO of the institution and requires a basic understanding of management principles, human resources, legal issues, finance, public relations and facilities & technology management. No one person has all these skills, but a competent, well trained library administrator has many and understands their strengths and weaknesses. Every library also requires a strong business office, and an experienced team of consultants (attorney, auditor, insurance advisor, etc.) to function effectively.

Work with your current director to examine these skills. If necessary, provide support for them to acquire the necessary training, and be willing to pay for assistance in those areas most lacking.

Obsess over your enabling legislation!

The foundation for Special and Consolidated Libraries is the enabling legislation that allowed the district residents to vote for the creation of the library. This enabling legislation is state law and, as such, not easily amended. Many libraries have found it necessary to seek “technical amendments” to their initial legislation because they did not thoroughly consider what was initially proposed. Do not just rely on your Legislator to draft your bill. Get expert assistance and work through every aspect of your legislation. Read it and understand it before it is introduced. It will be with you always.

Be prepared to “get out the vote”!

If you or your library have not been involved in the voting and election process in your community it’s time to learn about the process and the politics! Our country is based on public participation and informing the public about your vision and getting out the vote is hard work. Many library trustees are reluctant to “get involved in politics”. But “politics” is the American system and it is critical for any successful vote for you to understand the steps and the effort necessary to win the future for your library. Here’s a resource that should help: Public Library Vote Toolboxexternal link opens in a new window [Mid-Hudson Library System]

Invest in your campaign.

You simply cannot assume that everyone “loves the library” and that the good will the library has earned will win the day. You must be strategic and deliberate to get the word out about what you are doing and, most importantly, why you are doing it. Even strong library supporters will want to better understand the financial impact on their household budget and how the vote will impact the future of the library that they know and love. Get the word out. Do not leave it to chance.

Do not assume tax payers understand how the library is currently paid for or how much they are paying for it.

Let’s be frank. Many of your neighbors assume the library is mostly run by volunteers. (And, indeed, some are.) If you are rechartering and there has never been a public vote before, your community (even library supporters) may be quite surprised to find that your library is not a marginal charity, but an essential public education institution. Be transparent and let the community know what you are doing, how much it costs and what it will cost them in tax dollars. Now that you are asking for public support it is time to let them know the value of their investment in their community library.

Ensure your staff and Friends Group are kept in the loop.

Change is unsettling to everyone. Especially if they don’t understand what is going on and how it will affect them. Marketing any public library vote should start inside of the organization with meetings to brief staff and a library liaison to the Friends to explain the effort and what is involved. These two stakeholder groups can help you refine answers to frequently asked questions and be some of the best ambassadors for the campaign if they are given enough time and information to understand why the board is pursuing the path it is and what it means for the future of the library and the future of services for the community. Staff and Friends who feel left out of the loop have been known to engage in some behavior that can undermine a campaign, the very last thing you would want to see happen.

If you don’t succeed, try again.

While most campaigns are successful on their first attempt, those that fail and try again are nearly all successful. You can learn a lot from a loss, take the time to debrief with the campaign team. Ask trusted patrons and allies in the community what they think went wrong. You may hear that people just forgot to come out and vote, or you may hear that people didn’t understand what the outcome would mean for the future of the community. Sometimes, but rarely, you will hear that the library was asking for “too much money.” When you hear that, be sure to ask that person if they know how much they pay now for the library, ask if they know what the return on investment is for library services in your community. Ninety-nine percent (99%) do not know and have no context for the amount that was pursued. More times than not it boils down to something deceptively simple: getting out the vote (GOTV). Next time around, spend more time to inject urgency into your messaging and to mobilize voters to come out and vote. Find key spokespeople, not affiliated with the library board, to speak up in support. And be humble, be sure to say that you heard the voters the first time around and that you went back to the drawing board, show progress in your thinking and tactics but don’t back down, go out again. Your library is too important to too many people to accept defeat the first time around.