Public Library Boards: Key Roles

Being from a small farming community I have a particular soft spot for public libraries in small towns or rural areas – and for their boards. I was honoured to work with a small public library which, like so many small public libraries, is doing amazing amazing things. And I was doubly honoured to also work with their board members. I make some very basic assumptions about members of non-profit boards (which includes public library boards). My base assumptions are that the individuals on a non-profit board:

  • want to make a difference
  • are prepared to make a difference, meaning they are competent and willing to invest their time & talents
  • believe that the organization (in this case the Library) can & does make a difference to the community
  • each have different perspectives and different perceptions
  • and, finally, that they want their board experience to be fulfilling

Very briefly, they have three key responsibilities:

CEO: select and have a meaningful, respectful relationship with the CEO; the CEO is their one and only employee

Strategy: set the direction for the organization and oversee its implementation by delegating this to the CEO

Public Standing & Ethical Integrity: ensure the organization’s value and reputation for the community by providing financial oversight and building effective relationships with key stakeholders and decision-makers.

I understand very well how difficult it is for board members in small towns to keep their attention at the organization level and not the operation level.  They have often known staff members for years and no doubt have been – and continue to be – loyal library clients.  Yet as soon as an individual becomes a board member they need to recognize that they now have authority. As the adage says: “What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear a word you are saying.”    It is most unfortunate when board members become embroiled in a ‘he said;she said’ with staff and the CEO.  Just like municipal Councillors, board members must not direct staff or discuss issues with staff; they need to practice telling staff – no matter how long they have been neighbours or friends – to take the issue to the CEO, and express their trust in both the CEO and the individual staff member that “they will handle it effectively.”

I also understand that board members find it difficult to keep up with the many trends and developments impacting libraries.  However, they are responsible for the library’s strategic directions.  Strategic planning isn’t just an activity to “get done” every 4 or 5 years.  It is an ongoing, dynamic process.  Boards need to have a ‘strategic issue discussion’ or ‘generative discussion’ in each meeting – even if that is only for 15 – 20 minutes.  The board can then either look at one of the library’s strategies or goals, or ask the CEO to prepare one trend or issue for discussion.

Here are the slides that guided our board discussion; the websites we discussed as part of the generative discussion item were, of course!, the brainchild of brain Gary Price.  Thanks Gary – you keep me current and for that I am forever grateful!

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