Roles & Responsibilities of Library Trustees

Duties & Responsibilities of Trustees

For New Trustees

Each public library is chartered by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, one part of the vast statewide educational system. This means that libraries are separate, independent entities with their own governing boards that approve the local rules and budget. Trustees are also responsible for ensuring the library complies with the obligations outlined in Education Law, Commissioner's Regulations, General Municipal Law, Not-for-Profit Corporation Law, Election Law, Public Officers Law, Civil Practice Law, Civil Service Law, and all other NY and Federal Laws.

Duties of a Trustee

“The New York State Board of Regents, the institution responsible for the chartering and oversight of education corporations in New York, describes the duties of trustees as those of “Care, Loyalty and Obedience.” All actions must be taken with these principles in mind.”
Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State, page 15

Duty of Care: A trustee or board member must act in good faith and exercise the degree of diligence, care, and skill that an ordinary prudent individual would use under similar circumstances in a like position.

Duty of Loyalty/Conflict of Interest:Trustees/board members owe allegiance to the institution and must act in good faith with the best interest of the organization in mind. The conduct of a trustee/board member must, at all times, further the institution’s goals and not the member’s personal or business interests… A trustee/board member should avoid even the appearance of impropriety… Acts of self-dealing constitute a breach of fiduciary responsibility that could result in personal liability and removal from the board.

Duty of Obedience:A trustee/board member has a responsibility to ensure that the institution’s resources are dedicated to the fulfillment of its mission. The member also has a duty to ensure that the institution complies with all applicable laws and does not engage in any unauthorized activities.

Responsibilities of Trustees

There are nine primary responsibilities of trustees are few in number, but broad in scope.

These are the key items to consider when governing the library.
  1. Create and develop the mission of the library
  2. Regularly plan and evaluate the library's service program based on community needs
  3. Select, hire and regularly evaluate a qualified library director
  4. Secure adequate funding for the library's service program
  5. Exercise fiduciary responsibility for the use of public and private funds
  6. Adopt policies and rules regarding library governance and use
  7. Maintain a facility that meets the library’s and community’s needs
  8. Promote the library in the local community and in society in general
  9. Conduct the business of the library in an open and ethical manner in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and with respect for the institution, staff, and public

Minimum Standards for Libraries

All libraries are subject to the following Minimum Standards:

Visit for more information.

A Note on Collective Authority

Under New York State law, a library board has broad authority to manage the affairs of the library, but it is a collective authority. Individual trustees, regardless of their position on the board, do not have the power to command the services of a library staff member, nor to speak or act on behalf of the library, unless they have been specifically granted that authority by a vote of the board.

An important corollary to this concept of collective authority is the need for the board to speak with one voice once a decision has been made. Debate, discussion, and even disagreement over an issue are an important part of policy development and the decision making process. However, every trustee has an ethical obligation to publicly support an adopted board decision.

The First Amendment protects the rights of a trustee who disagrees so strongly with a board decision that he or she must speak out publicly against it. However, in such instances the individual must make it clear to all concerned that they do not represent the library and, indeed, may wish to seriously consider resigning from the board if such action interferes with their ability to effectively fulfill their responsibilities as a trustee.

Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State, page 24

Board & Director Responsibilities

The board’s role is to govern the library - to approve policy, secure adequate funding and hire a competent, qualified library director.
The director’s role is to manage the library - to implement the board’s policies on a day-to-day basis, manage the staff and help lead the library forward in the best way possible to meet the needs of the community
Handbook for New Public Library Directors in New York State, page 31

Quiz: Who Does What?

After each statement, write “B” if the board is responsible for the item or “D” if the library director is responsible for the item.

Keep in mind "governance" and "management."
1. Create library positions, establish salaries, and appoint staff. ____
2. Select, hire, manage, and supervise the library staff. ____
3. Create, develop, and continuously review the mission of the library. ____
4. Develop and implement services that support the mission. ____
5. Communicate the library’s mission to staff and the community. ____
6. Operate underwritten bylaws. ____
7. Write and review policies. ____
8. Ensure that practice and policy are aligned. ____
9. Develop an annual budget. ____
10. Present written budget requests to funding agencies. ____
11. Ensure that proper policies and procedures are in place to mitigate financial risk. ____
12. Oversee the selection and ordering of all library materials. ____
13. Secure adequate funds to carry out library operations. ____
14. Evaluate the effectiveness of library programs and services. ____
15. Maintain a facility that meets the library and community needs. ____
16. Conduct the business of the library in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. ____
Additional comparison charts:

The Critical Partnership

Trustees and Director

As the library's governing body (and the entity with ultimate accountability for the institution), the board of trustees has the responsibility to hire a competent, professional and qualified library director as the “CEO” (Chief Executive Officer) and then to regularly review and evaluate that person's performance in moving the library forward. Having hired a director, the board has an obligation to support the director wholeheartedly within the context of the employment relationship. Good communication and cooperation between the board and library director and an appreciation of the interdependency of each other's roles are prerequisites to a well-managed library. It is critical for the board to establish and maintain clear lines of communication with the director. In general, the board's directions and intentions are communicated to the director through the President of the Board or through official actions at a board meeting. Individual trustees should refrain from issuing specific instructions to the director at board meetings and especially between meetings. Such individual directions are inconsistent with the concept of collective board authority and a library director risks being caught between conflicting intentions, even among well-meaning trustees.
Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State, page 43

Trustees and Staff

The day-to-day management of the library, including the management of staff, is the library director's responsibility. The director is the only employee overseen by the board. The director is responsible for the management and supervision of all other library employees. Trustees have a responsibility to know staff at a friendly but professional distance, to be cordial and supportive and to promote good will. But they must approach staff relationships with a degree of caution. Usurping the administrative prerogatives of the library director can only undermine that person's position and authority and ultimately lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Board policies, including a “Whistleblower” policy as required by law, should clearly indicate the process for staff complaints and grievances, and the board should never get involved in such activities outside of this process.
Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State, page 43-44

There should be a clear line of communication at the library. Staff should communicate with the Director, and the Director should communicate with the Board. The Board should not be communicating directly with staff unless there is a significant issue that involves the Director (incident, whistleblower situation, or conflict of interest). The staff can reach out to the Board president for support if these issues arise.

Handbook for Library Trustees of New York, Appendix: Working Together: Roles & Responsibilities Guidelines, page 107-108

Public Officers Law

  • All library boards are subject to Open Meetings Law,
    • Public may attend meetings;
    • Minutes must be made available;
    • Board must follow legal notice requirements; and
    • Board may enter "executive session" for a limited number of reasons.
  • Freedom of Information Law (FOIL)
    • Public Libraries are subject to FOIL requests, however, all libraries should have a policy on handling them.
  • Oath of Office
    • Public Library Trustees are required to file an Oath of Office;
    • Association Libraries should adopt the same practice; and
    • Directors should also take an Oath of Office.

Active Board Development

Creating the culture of an effective board takes time. When thinking about your role as a trustee, keep constant development in mind.

Board Evaluation: Annually the board should be conducting a performance evaluation for the director to review goals, responsibilities, and accomplishments. Consider performing a board evaluation at this time as well. Boards always have areas they can strengthen in recruitment, teamwork, education, policy, etc. There are many different types of board evaluation techniques that can help. Even having a simple discussion on the challenges and aspirations of the board can be beneficial.

Education: Aside from the two hours of mandated training for trustee education, board members should always seek to improve their understanding of library governance through continuing education. Workshops are offered through the library system and NYLA.

Recruitment: Special care and attention should be put into recruiting new trustees for your board. Think about what long-term goals and initiatives you have. Think about what skills would help you achieve these goals.

Orientation: Each new board member should be given an opportunity to sit down with the library director and board president to review the library's essential documents (bylaws, policies, long-range plan, financial statements, meeting minutes) to better understand the library and their role as a trustee.

Effective Library Trustees

A trustee must make decisions based on the best information available [and consult appropriate experts]...Under New York State law, library boards have broad and almost exclusive powers and authority to administer the library. The board should not only be concerned with the internal operations of the organization, but also alert to the external trends and changes that can affect the library's program of services. Being proactive and open to change is imperative in order to survive and thrive in a world in which change is the only constant.
Handbook for New Public Library Directors in New York State, page 17

Checklist for Effective Library Trustees

unchecked Be active and informed about library matters in general and of those affecting your library.
Ask questions of the directory and study the issues.
unchecked Read all board materials (agenda, minutes, documents under discussion) prior to the board meeting.
unchecked Attend all board meetings and be prepared to participate knowledgeably.
unchecked Question issues until you understand.
Don’t be reluctant to vote “No” on a proposal you don’t understand or are uncomfortable about.
unchecked Be a team player and treat your fellow board members with respect.
unchecked Always have the best interest of the library in mind when making decisions.
unchecked Support board decisions even if you disagree.
Democracy works by the rule of the majority. Seek reconsideration in the future if circumstances change.
unchecked Understand the roles of all involved--the board, director, staff, Friends, and patrons.
Respect all opinions; whether you agree or not.
unchecked Conflicts of interest by any board member are the concern of all members of the board
(Even the appearance of a potential conflict undermines their trust in the entire library as a valued community institution).
unchecked Advocate for the library in every manner possible.
unchecked Support competitive salaries in order to attract and retain qualified staff.
Appropriate compensation is a direct measure of the commitment and respect a community has for the institution and its staff.
unchecked Annually evaluate the board, individually and as a whole.
This process has proven to be an effective means to improve intra-board communication and bring focus to the tasks at hand.
unchecked Understand and respect the role of the director as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the library corporation
Support the director’s administrative decisions.
unchecked It’s about the library, not about you.
Your primary job is to provide the highest quality library service possible for your community, not the cheapest.


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