I have a theory that too many library trustees are underutilized in their board work. In far too many libraries, fear of meddling and of losing control have meant that directors don’t take advantage of the expertise and talent on their Board of Trustees. Where that is true, library leaders are squandering critical capacity and losing a potent edge in the key task of connecting to the community.
There is excellent board development happening in many libraries, but I have also seen politics trump proactive leadership. This can take place anywhere on a continuum from worst case to bad enough to unfortunate. In the worst, but relatively rare, case, an embattled board works purposefully against a director. Bad enough, but perhaps more pervasive, more subtle power struggles undermine a director’s authority or limit how deeply the director pulls the board into the strategic thinking involved in running a library. Unfortunate, and possibly most pernicious, the board walks through the process, rubber-stamping decisions and remaining relatively uninformed about the library—and that’s okay with the director. If any of this sounds like your board, take action to remedy the situation.
Working with a board can be a chore, or it can be an evolving collaboration. Trustees are often kept at arm’s length, out of the loop, and dealt with as another management problem, not as allies in the delivery of library service. Great things can happen when directors actively involve a diverse range of board members in solving problems and guide them in how to apply their special skills to delivering on the library mission. This is the goal of many directors I have spoken with, and many spend a great deal of time nurturing board members, attuning them to the fundamentals of the library, and educating them about the finer points of the responsibility of governance. That is hard work, requiring savvy and its own skill set. It also requires vision to keep seeing where new people can fit into the library plan. Also, if the board is hampered by a political issue, infighting, or a director who dreads micromanaging more than she or he desires aid, it can be a tense dance to move toward a more productive environment.
For many libraries, the bulk of board work occurs outside the flow of daily library life, via periodic meetings punctuated by special events such as fundraisers or holiday festivities. But it shouldn’t be an afterthought. In a crisis, such as a budget battle, a book challenge, or even something as simple as bad press about a library service, an aligned board can bolster and even improve the outlook, while an unprepared board will be a drain on the director, if not a stumbling block. During active strategic development, such as master planning, a disconnected board can slow responsive change, while an informed and community-aware board can help drive the right transformations.
Trustees are, of course, a source of all types of mastery and social and financial contacts, and they are committed library supporters ready to assist with the myriad talents they bring from their lives beyond libraries. The standing tenet, that trustees set policy and directors manage operations, holds—it is a critical balance in the governance of the library. Experienced library directors know this is most often observed in the breach, where policies and practice are frequently the product of shared cooperative effort by trustees and librarians to solve problems and improve service.
I consider board members emissaries of the library in the community and think they should hear issues and think about where the library could fit into a solution. They are also representatives of the community, bringing perspective and, one hopes, a diversity of voices back to the library. There should be a high expectation of their service.
As a library board member myself, at the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, NY, I think every player has a role in creating a better board—even if I sometimes fall short of my own goals.
Trustees, consider yourself a library ambassador when you are out in the community. Be prepared to speak knowledgeably about the library in informal settings. Understand the budget. Raise problems to solve and support innovation when needed.
Directors, trustees don’t want your job, but they do want a job. They should extend your strategic thinking. If the library’s challenges are shared with trustees, these individuals will engage in the work of meeting them. Don’t waste these valuable allies.