July 1999

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Rewards Of Trusteeship

By Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

July 1999 issue of Trustee

I see good fortune for all of us in having become library trustees. During a meditative interval due to winter illness this year, I discovered that trusteeship has brought to me a number of experiences and rewards which never would have come my way otherwise. I am sharing some of them here just as an example of the diversity of experiences that may be available to you as a trustee.


The rewards are not in "being" a library trustee (the pay is far less than zero and the prestige is minimal at best) but in "doing” the trusteeship. By keeping an open mind and a questing spirit, by becoming involved in the library's problems and by doing whatever little I could to help solve them, I found myself immersed in activities and experiences that were novel to me, and I learned many things that were also quite new.  Since I tend to enjoy learning (I only wish that I could remember better what I have learned in life -- too often the result is more like a passing stream than a growing reservoir), even the hassle of problem-solving has its reward. I am not a grants-person, but I became a grant writer of sorts -- with many pains and some successes. I know little about construction, but now I talk with architects.


My political interests are minimal and somewhat cynical, but I have experienced the Albany lobby day madnesses and various mixtures of sincerity and "rap" in conversations with politicians there and elsewhere... all on library issues. My opinions about the political world are based now more upon concrete personal examples than they had been earlier.


By "doing" the trusteeship, I went to annual conferences, workshops, did personal, literary and internet research on various topics, took on projects, and listened, listened, listened (usually feeling thoroughly outclassed by the expertise and long experience of the people whom I met)  as I tried to understand  a bit of this library community of which my own library is a very small part.


The trusteeship led me to participate in several newspaper editorial board interviews which ranged from one-on-one informality to something more like a dissertation examination by a committee on Mount Olympus. By being involved in some small aspect of library affairs, I have met impressive people in my local community, in my library system, and in other parts of the state. My particular path also led me to NYSALB, and I am in awe of the knowledge, devotion and energy of my fellow directors, all of whom are far more experienced than I am. I found myself writing this column about small libraries -- another unanticipated challenge: often frustrating, sometimes fun. I found myself reciting Melville and doing a small part (one word! ) in a video about libraries -- never before had I seen a film project or a film crew in operation -- creativity and madness indistinguishable. I have learned more about library databases because of the trusteeship, and I take advantage of them.


My photograph has been published in several newspapers (a mixed blessing). My local anonymity is gone.  But it gives people an excuse to speak to me about the library, and they have given me some good ideas.


The library world really is large and quite diverse. Your particular path in it will go in other directions than mine, but it WILL lead to interesting places and new vistas if you just keep moving; get out of the board room and beyond those apocryphal "four meetings a year" which (I am told) were once reality. Don't be embarrassed because you represent a library so small that it fits inside the restroom of a big metropolitan library. You may not know the bureaucratic complexities that face the trustee of such libraries, but they are not likely to know the intensities of service and the realities that challenge you. If you can't think of anything to tell them (other than the fact that small libraries have just as much right to adequate funding as big libraries), then ask them something. They may like to talk, and you may learn something.


A good argument is often made that library trustees should be selected for the (free) expertise that they bring to the board. A lawyer brings his or her skill and continues to do lawyering. A businessman brings connections and continues to connect. An architect architects for the library, in concept if not in execution.  A fund-raiser brings fundraising skills and funds raised.  And so on. But I wonder if these resourceful people working within their own established skills get as much FROM the experience of library trusteeship as does someone who is an intelligent neophyte, someone for whom it is a new world of challenges. I tend to think that board members may be better rewarded personally when they do not think of themselves as experts still working in their own field but rather as low key neophytes in a new world into which they have jumped and who are receiving moments of insight, accomplishment, and satisfaction along the way. To be a library trustee is rewarding pretty much in proportion to what you give to it, not to what you demand from it. If you are not doing much of anything as a trustee or if you are not receiving some life-enhancing experiences from it, you probably should be doing something else -- life is too short.

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