Summer 2003

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What's Your Library Board's IQ

By Susan Keitel, NYLA Executive Director

Summer 2003 issue of Trustee

For us humans, intelligence comes in more than one form.   Some of us are practical, down-to-earth, doers of tasks.   Others are thinkers or dreamers who can envision the way things could be, or ought to be.   Among us as a group can be found actors, artists, athletes, poets, politicians, bakers, bankers, lawyers, lobbyists, librarians, and all manner of malingerers; and each of us can do some things better than we can do others.  

Library boards are groups of individual human beings, each of whom brings to the board table emotions, experiences, skills, and intelligence.  Coupled with each individual's patterns of working, there results on every library board a rich and complicated pool of talent in which decisions must be made, policies must be devised, and problems must be solved.  

Library boards are not families, although their members may occasionally grow fond of one another; neither are they tribes, where people willingly adhere to similar traditions and rituals.  Library boards are willy-nilly collections of folk whose agreed upon goal is  to direct and support the work of their library.  They must do this within the complex geography of their combined talents, eccentricities, egos, and ambitions, mapped in the particular situation of their individual library.   Small wonder that it is sometimes not so easy for a board to behave well and act productively.  

Given the diversity of people on every library board, how can boards be effective and smart?  What does it mean to have a smart library board?  If every library board were smart and efficient, how would our libraries improve?  There are deceptively simple answers to these questions.  

How can a library board be smart?  A board is smart when it assesses and values the contributions and talents of each of its members.   It is smart when it acknowledges its members' weaknesses without insult; and when it capitalizes on its members' strengths without undue favoritism.   A smart board is a civil board; it is a respectful board; it is a board that keeps its collective eye on the goal of great library service.  The board is smart when it learns, really learns, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  

What does it mean to have a smart library board?  It means that the bases are covered, whether they are the bases of library policy, fund-raising, financial accounting, public relations, law, advocacy, budgeting, real estate, or board and director evaluation.   Having a smart library board means that the public can rest easy and know that all is well, or all will be made well for the library if something untoward occurs.  A smart board knows how to work with an agenda, how to keep minutes, how to use committees, how to work with a Friends group, and how to stay out of trouble.   A smart library board knows what it doesn't know and fills in its gaps with diligence, inquiry, and intelligence.  

If all library boards were smart, would New York's libraries improve?  You bet!  There would be no lack of advocates in Albany or Washington for library funding; there would be no defeated bond issues at home.   Libraries would have enough books, computers, staff and space for everyone to be served.  Libraries would not only be loved, they would be acknowledged as strong and indispensable community resources whose funding needs would be dependably met.  

Because NYLA believes that smart library boards are one of the greatest assets a library can have, the Association is developing a new program of board evaluation.   A service offering evaluation of library boards, either on an ongoing or a one-time basis, done  by Association staff or consultants, will soon be available from NYLA.   For more information, please watch the NYLA website at <> or you may call the office at 1-800-252-6952 and speak with the Executive Director.

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