With the start of a new season and possible changes in board make up, directors and staffing, a review of the Personnel information from the Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State could be helpful. The management and operation of a library is a partnership.

This information below & much more can be found in the Trustee Handbook.

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

As the library’s governing body (and the entity with ultimate accountability for the institution), the board of trustees has the responsibility to hire a competent, professional and responsible library director as the “CEO” (Chief Executive Officer) and then to review and evaluate that person’s performance regularly. Having hired a director, the board has an obligation to support the 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 clear lines of communication with the director. In general, the board’s directions and intentions are communicated to the director through the President of the Board. Individual trustees should refrain from issuing specific instructions to the 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.

The day-to-day management of the library, including the management of staff, is the library director’s responsibility. The director is the only employee supervised by the board; the director is responsible for the management and supervision of all other library employees. Trustees have a responsibility to know staff at a friendly but professional distance, to be cordial and supportive and to promote good will, but they must approach staff relationships with a degree of caution. Usurping the administrative prerogatives of the library director can only undermine that person’s position and authority.

Some trustees act as library volunteers, especially in small libraries. Likewise, libraries without an anti- nepotism policy often have trustees’ family members on staff.  (The law only specifically prohibits public library trustees from appointing their close relatives as “officers of the corporation”, i.e., director, treasurer or trustee.) This can lead to an awkward situation for all involved.

A trustee is part of the governing board of the library, while staff and volunteers report to the library director or other paid supervisor. Role confusion is almost inevitable and 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.

Library policy should clearly indicate the process for staff complaints and grievances, and the board should never get involved in such activities outside of that policy. Individual trustees must never address staff complaints and grievances; rather, they should refer the staff to the policy. If and when a grievance reaches the board level, it is usually the responsibility of the director to communicate the board’s decision back to the staff. Only in those cases where the grievance involves the director should the board communicate directly with the staff.

Appointment of Staff

New York State Education Law specifies that all personnel actions must be approved by the Board of Trustees 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 upon 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 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.

In any case, the board retains its authority regarding the appointment and compensation of library employees.

Selecting the Library Director 

The most important responsibility of a library board of trustees is to select a library director who not only can work effectively with the board, and professionally manage the institution, but who also reflects the ideals of the institution and the community it serves.  In addition, all libraries are required to comply with Commissioner’s Regulations governing the minimum qualifications for library director, while public libraries must also conform to the civil service rules for employment in their jurisdiction and in the State of New York.

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.  Such questions might include:

  • What qualities do you value in your Library Director?
  • What are the most important skills your Director must possess?
  • What roles do you see the 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 Director or are you willing to give bright young 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.  Competent leadership of the library is essential for its efficient management and future success.  Choosing an inadequate 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.

To assure the best selection solicit candidates from a wide variety of sources.  Talk to your library system director. 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.  Lastly, negotiate a fair agreement for salary and benefits.  Qualified professionals will expect no less.

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. It is often one of the most difficult tasks as well.  There are several good reasons to conduct an annual performance review.  Among them:

  • A review provides the director with formal feedback on his or her job performance;
  • The evaluation effort provides the board with critical information about the operations and performance of the library;
  • The evaluation process can be used to establish the goals and objectives of the library, as well as of the director;
  • A meaningful evaluation process can link compensation to job performance;
  • A thoughtful evaluation can 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 process;
  • The formal evaluation process is necessary to properly document unsatisfactory performance.

It is essential that a written, reasonable and up-to-date job description be in place as a benchmark.  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 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.  In order to make the process more effective consider the following tips:

  • Have a valid, realistic job description in place;
  • Have a written agreement or contract stating the director’s conditions of employment, salary and benefits;
  • Conduct a written evaluation of the critical aspects of the job by members of the board or have the director provide a detailed self evaluation for board review and discussion;
  • Evaluate the director’s performance against the goals and objectives of the library’s long range and strategic plans;
  • Use the opportunity to evaluate the board’s performance as well;
  • Make sure the entire board participates in the evaluation process;
  • Be open and honest and do it face to face.

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.