George Hawtin, Head Editor, INALJ Saskatchewan
Your Library Board: Who Are They? Why Are They Here?
As a lifelong library lover and avid community volunteer, I applied to join my hometown’s library board in 2008. In my early twenties with little formal education or business experience, I loved the library, but I knew very little about librarians and their work. I didn’t understand that librarians generally have master’s degrees. I didn’t know anything about cataloging or reference or library programming.
You name it, I didn’t know it. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm and record of community involvement convinced the selection committee to appoint me to the board. Despite my inexperience, almost immediately, I was playing a significant role in major business decisions – hiring a new chief librarian, developing the library’s strategic plan, building community partnerships, overseeing millions of dollars in library spending. The more I learned about what librarians actually do, the more I fell in love with the profession, and after my term on the board ended, I went to library school. There, I found an understandable undercurrent of skepticism toward library boards.
Most library board trustees, like me in 2008, know significantly less about libraries than do the librarians they employ; it is understandable that professional librarians might resent having to answer to non-librarians. If you find yourself frustrated with this organizational structure, here are some things to keep in mind.
• Love the library A very few people join library boards to feel important, or to push a political agenda (“More censorship!” “Less censorship!” “I don’t want to pay fines!”), or because their favourite hockey team missed the playoffs and they need something to do with their weeknights. But almost every trustee I’ve ever known becomes a trustee because they love the library and want to help it be the best it can be. They’re not (generally) harsh taskmasters or imperious overlords. They came to the library in a different way from you, but for similar reasons.
• Appreciate your skills and want you to make the most of them Some trustees, like me, don’t fully “get” librarians at first, but they learn quickly that library professionals have the skills that keep the libraries running. Trustees want you to use your skills, and professional experience to make constructive suggestions and recommendations that will strengthen the library. Note that every library has its own policies regarding board-staff relationship—some are very hierarchical, where library staff bring ideas to their supervisors, who bring those ideas to management, who bring them to the chief librarian, who brings them to the board chair, who reports them to the full board, whereas others are flatter and encourage direct communication between board and staff at all levels.
Find out what system your library uses to communicate ideas from staff to board, and then take full advantage of it – directly or indirectly, board trustees love to hear staff’s ideas about how the library can get better.
• Have business skills and/or community connections that you can use for the library’s benefit At many library schools, courses in the business aspects of librarianship (management, human resources, budgeting) are optional, if they are offered at all; these are skills librarians have to pick up over the years, through experience, professional development, and osmosis. Many library trustees have business or professional backgrounds (I was obviously the exception). Those trustees can give useful advice on the topics library school has failed to address. Library trustees with business experience can also make the library appear more “businesslike” and “professionally managed”; in some ways, these assumptions are faulty, but they can impress funders and lead to more money coming into the library!
The other area in which library trustees can be useful is in providing community connections. In today’s job market, librarians rarely serve the communities where they live. If you’re starting as a librarian in a new community, you might have creative ideas for programming and community partnerships, but not know how best to implement them. That’s what boards are for. Want a grant from your local Rotary Club? Someone on your board is probably a Rotarian, or knows one. Want to set up a joint program with the local school board? Great – call the school superintendent or principal who’s moonlighting as one of your board trustees, and they can help make it happen. Board trustees are almost always chosen because they can bring something tangible to the library, either in practical business skills or in community connections. And they almost always volunteered for the job because they want you to use those skills to help the library.
• Stay out of the librarians’ way When some librarians learn that the chief librarian “reports to” a board, they have nightmares of a Dickensian brute standing behind them cracking a whip. “Catalogue faster! Cut down on your expenses! Put on a brief skit for my amusement! Go! Go! Go!” But, really, most trustees are very hands-off, especially when it comes to the day-to-day. Very rare is the trustee who’ll interfere with a librarian’s work. (If that happens to you, tell your supervisor!) They provide strategic and business direction at their (usually) one-evening-a-month board meetings; they sometimes agree to do additional committee work amongst themselves or alongside librarians; they sometimes show up at library events; they’re resources you can access for advice in their areas of expertise, but generally, the last thing they want to do is boss you around or get inappropriately involved in your work.
The relationship between library staff and library boards can be an awkward one in some ways, with some creative tension between people who have different skill sets, but librarians and library board trustees can and should work together to harness that creative tension and employ it to benefit the library. We’re all on the same team!