Spring 2009

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From the State Librarian

By Bernard Margolis, New York State Librarian

Spring 2009 issue of Trustee

Good Library Trustees


Until about seven weeks ago I thought that I knew exactly and precisely what good Library Trustees were supposed to do. With many years of experience working closely for and with close to a hundred different Trustees at various public libraries I thought I understood quite well the basic and fundamental role of the Trustee. Certainly I had read all the manuals, been to many training sessions, heard consultants and advisors, and had a rich background of hands-on, practical experience.  I was convinced first and foremost that the most important job of the Trustee was to help select and then feed and nurture an outstanding library leader. “Pick the best and then stand aside and let them do their best” was how I often stated this top priority for Trustees. My own observations suggested that this task was often difficult and that Trustees often were and are challenged to determine the best and most needed attributes for their library leader. Often skills outweighed personality, or vice versa and I saw many cases of book-learning being more important than experience. Competency was often expected but sometimes its measurement was clumsy or incomplete. Recruiting great library leaders is no easy task! I had been convinced that the Trustee job of finding a great Director was the number one task and instituting an effective evaluation process was an intrinsic and vital part of this Trustee role. Knowing that you selected the best leader needs to be verified. When you measure the leader’s performance and the results provide gratifying evidence to support your choice, it provides great reinforcement that the selection role was well executed. When the evaluation does not support expected outcomes the role of selecting (again) becomes even more important.

If selecting the best leader is the most critical role, what is the second most important role?  I have always thought that the second most critical requirement was to steward the Library’s financial and other resources. More directly stated,  the Trustees must approve the budget and hold the Director accountable for its implementation. The role as steward of the funds is part of the statutory duties of Trustees almost everywhere. Auditing the financial records and evaluating the library’s fiscal and financial health are basic to the work of the Trustee. This role is, of course, not to micro-manage but rather to have systems in place to guarantee that financial and other resources (buildings, staff, collections, endowments, etc.) are properly and effectively used. Today, we use outside auditors, review their management letters, ask for budgets, review grant reports and scan statistical reviews and other support information to understand how resources are used. The expectation of hiring the best Director and then getting out of the way supposes that the Director is accountable and that effective communication about the library’s financial situation are a regular part of the Director-Trustee relationship.  Directors want Trustees to understand the library’s finances and to be helpful in bringing more financial resources to the library.

Ooops! These notions of the two most vital roles for library Trustees have been drastically disrupted over the past several weeks as I have taken the reigns of the New York State Library as the new State Librarian.  Of course this is not because I was mistaken. It is because my perspective has changed. I have been forced, part by circumstances and part by now having a new and different perch from which to view the world in general and libraries specifically, to look at things differently than in the past.  The circumstances are, of course, the recession and economic chaos in which we find ourselves. The state’s fiscal condition coupled with the very nature of a mature (complicated) state government has given me pause to add a third essential role to the two that I thought held sway over all others. I would even go so far as to argue that this third role could be viewed as the MOST important role for a library trustee today. It is the role of advocacy.

Advocacy, by definition*, is “the act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.” Most of us advocate regularly in our various roles at work, in and with our families, in social and other settings. We take for granted that we have opinions that deserve both to be shared with others and that often require our persistence to be understood and embraced by others. We are all advocates. When we tell children to do their homework, take out the garbage, walk the dog, brush their teeth, or clean their plates we are advocating. Though success may be mixed for compliance to this  “children’s” list, we are practicing our advocacy by giving active, verbal support for a cause or position. When the dog barks he is also advocating for that cause (a long walk) as well.  The word “active” is critical to the advocacy required of Library Trustees. The word “continuous” is also critical to the advocacy required of Library Trustees.  And the word “passionate” could also be added to the description of the tone and importance that must be part of the Library Trustee’s advocacy.  Too often we leave to our library leaders (directors) the role of speaking out in support of libraries. These leaders naturally know more about the “cause” and may be more knowledgeable about details and specifics. Trustees are hired (appointed/elected) to represent the public’s interest. Having selected a great leader, evaluated her work, given approval to her use of resources, the Trustee knows more than enough to state a forceful case to support the library.  Advocacy is required.

There are many avenues for the Trustee to carry out the advocacy role. Active work in the New York Library Association (NYLA) and the New York State Association of Library Boards (NYSALB) is one step. Participation in NYLA Lobby Day is another great chance for advocacy. The best advocacy for Trustees is accomplished with calls, letters, e-mails and personal visits to legislators and elected officials at every level – every day. The best advocacy extends beyond just elected officials to the broad base of constituents who use – or might use,  the library. Continuous advocacy might mean creating new opportunities for elected officials and the general public to understand the critical issues facing libraries. Active support of the library everywhere is critical. Talk with your friends and co-workers. When people tell you to stop talking about libraries you know your work is done – at least for the day. You can always say, “Ooops, I got carried away”.

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,  Fourth Edition, 2000.

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