While most public library trustees are not lawyers, trustees are expected to follow
the law of the land, whether that “land” be federal, state or in your very own library. When seeking answers and guidance it is important to understand which legal instruments have precedence over others.

A common example of confusion in this area is where you would find the answer to how many trustees serve on your board. You may think it is your bylaws, but actually it is your library’s charter, issued by the New York State Board of Regents. If the two don’t match you could be in some legal hot water if someone challenges a decision made by the
board. Another example is library policy, it may not violate state or federal law.

Here are simple explanations of the various sources of law and guidance you may be using to make governance and policy decisions help you get a better understanding of “what trumps what”:

  • Law: a law is specific, written legislation that is made by elected officials and administered through the courts. For example, the basic powers and duties of trustees can be found in Education Law §226. this law provides the basic rules of conduct for
    a library board.
  • Regulation: Laws are carried out through the development and enforcement of regulations. Regulations are usually set by the arm of government tasked with oversight of that area of law. If a library is in violation of a regulation there is authorization of the government oversight agency to pursue correction, possibly punitive correction. For example, the Education Commissioner is authorized to set regulations that impact libraries in New York State, like the Minimum Standards for public libraries.Minimum standards are tied to a library’s ability to receive tax dollars so if a library does not comply with the standards there is theoretically very big consequence.
  • Opinions: Opinions should not be confused with yours, or your fellow trustees’ opinions. Pertinent opinions are issued by agencies such as the Commissioner of Education or the Office of the State Comptroller to provide an analysis of how a particular law or regulation applies in a very specific situation.
  • Charter: This document, issued by the New York State Board of Regents, gives the library its corporate existence. The charter defines the library’s service area, number of trustees and other fundamental facts about the library.
    – Provisional charter: newly established libraries are given a provisional charter that is
    valid for five years. There are usually stipulations that a library develop its organization in a specific way to demonstrate it is a viable library within those five years.
    – Absolute charter: At the expiration of the provisional charter, the charter may either
    be made absolute or extended for an additional five years.
  • Bylaws: All libraries must have written, board approved bylaws which define how the library will be governed. This document may not conflict with the charter. The bylaws will outline how a board functions. Sample bylaws are available in the Trustee Handbook.
  • Policies: A policy is a guiding principle used to set direction in the library. Written, board approved policies are a minimum standard for public libraries
    in New York State. They are the “micro local laws” of your library but may not exist in conflict with laws, regulations or the library’s charter.
  • Procedures: A procedure is an outline of the steps that should be taken by staff or trustees to accomplish something stipulated within policy.

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, Coordinator for Library Sustainability for the Mid-Hudson Library System, Co-Author of the Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State and Mentor for the Helping All Trustee Succeed (HATS) ILEAD Team

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