March 25, 2017

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The Future of Library Boards | Designing the Future

michaelbursteinheadshot_webLast year, our library director brought a futurist to meet with the Board of Trustees to help us better understand the future of the library. I vividly remember the first point in his presentation: the vast majority of services the library will provide will stay the same. People will still want programming and books. But, he went on, some things will change quite notably in the next two decades or so. Patrons will expect a variety of new services, including credentialing, personal ongoing education, and the library’s own social media network.

One question he didn’t address was our future as trustees. It never occurred to any of us to ask. After all, someone has to set policies, advocate for the library and budget, hire the director, and be responsible to the public. However, just as libraries themselves will undergo significant changes, so will boards.

Board Business Will Not Change Much…

Given the role that trustees play in municipal government, it’s unlikely that technology will alter the way boards conduct business. In our town, we can have a trustee call into a meeting if attending in person is impossible, but we don’t use this option often. Despite corporate meetings now taking place via audio or video conference, trustee meetings aren’t likely to move in that direction. In Massachusetts, at least, we have an open meeting law that requires municipal boards to hold their meetings publicly and give notice so the public can attend. Boards will continue to meet as we always have: in person at the library and on a regular schedule.

But Board Composition Will…

Who exactly will new trustees be, though? In general, people who choose the role feel invested in their community, and trustees will continue to be drawn from that population—which often means homeowners and/or parents who have the time to devote to board work. One might think this means boards will continue to skew older and upper-middle-class. But a look at recent research from the Pew Center suggests otherwise.

Two-parent households are on the decline, and the middle class is continuing to shrink. Although the population of Americans age 65 and older is growing, chances are likely that boards will end up being younger. Because of this, boards are liable to become more transient. In the future, we will see boards on which the majority of trustees are newer to the job.

Also, the population is becoming more diverse, and boards will too. In just 40 years there will be no single racial or ethnic majority, in large part owing to immigration. A more diverse overall American population will probably lead to a more diverse library staff and collection.

As Will Interactions With the Public…

Over the next few decades, more people of all generations are going to depend on their libraries, and more patrons will become involved, or at least knowledgeable, about how their local library is run. If your role as a trustee has been mostly to deal with other trustees and the municipal government, expect a divergence. Even those of us who are appointed to a board rather than elected will be contacted by patrons on a regular basis.

The Issues We Deal With…

And what will they contact us about? In the next quarter-century, trustees are going to have to deal with a lot of new issues, mostly based on our increasingly technological and connected society.

In particular, privacy will continue to be a major issue. Libraries will collect even more information about patrons and will be expected to hold onto it while at the same time not revealing it. Trustees are going to have to consider, review, and create privacy policies that take into account a patron’s entire life, as libraries will have information and files that extend from childhood through retirement—possibly stored among several different libraries, given the mobility of the populace.

…And Our Interactions with the Director

Finally, boards are going to become even more dependent on the director for guidance, advice, and suggestions. It’s not just because trustees will be less experienced, but because the role of the library will expand, owing to technological advances and social changes. Given that trustees are almost always volunteers, we frequently find ourselves approving director suggestions simply because they know more than we do. As we chart an uncertain course into the future, we will need to trust our directors because we are approaching the point where we won’t know enough to trust ourselves.


Michael A. Burstein has been a Trustee of the Public Library of Brookline, MA, since 2004 and chaired the board for two years. He is the award-winning author of I Remember the Future (Apex ­Publications, 2008).

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