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4. Duties

The responsibilities of the library board regarding planning, leadership, policy, and budgeting.

Public library board responsibilities vary by jurisdiction, but their common duties relate to library planning, leadership, policy, and budgeting. Their main responsibilities are as follows:

4a. To learn the needs, aspirations, and strengths of the community the library serves and use this information to evaluate and plan library services

If library services are developed and implemented without reference to what the local community needs, wants or aspires to, they will likely not succeed overall. This seems obvious but service organizations traditionally are inward-focused, looking at how they can expand and market what they have in place rather than learning about their communities and developing services based on that knowledge. The temptation that board members and library staff face is to create and lobby for services that are personally interesting or nostalgic for them. Services implemented without regard to community needs, desires, strengths, and assets run the risk of being irrelevant or even disrespectful to the community, and/or replicating what is already being done by others.

As public libraries look at pushing their boundaries to fulfill a broader mission, it is critical that they recognize that they can do this most effectively through partnerships. Partnerships require that libraries establish ties with other community organizations. Community connection and knowledge are critical to effective library services, and this knowledge should serve as the underpinning for everything done by the library and the board.

Recent national and state efforts on gathering community knowledge and building connection include:

  • Turning Outward and Harwood Public Innovation for California’s Libraries. In 2014 the American Library Association partnered with the renowned Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to offer training and tools to strengthen libraries’ role as community leaders and change agents, using the Institute’s Turning Outward approach to community engagement. This led to statewide trainings in many states, including California, and the development of California-specific Harwood resources.
  • Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries. The Aspen Institute developed its Dialogue on Public Libraries to create a framework for libraries to connect with community stakeholders and showcase models on how community leaders can leverage libraries as platforms for building more knowledgeable, healthy and sustainable communities. Several California libraries have held regional dialogues in partnership with the Aspen Institute, see the Resources Guide for more information.
  • Research Institute for Public Libraries (RIPL)RIPL is an ongoing national initiative to provide training and tools to create a culture shift in which library leaders become purposeful in gathering, analyzing, and using data for decision making, strategic planning, and demonstrating impact.  RIPL trainings are periodically held in California and national webinars and workshops are available.
  • Data sources. Sources for free demographic data for California communities include the U.S. Census, the California Department of Finance, the California Employment Development Department, and the California State Association of Counties. Commercial products used by many California public libraries include Gale Analytics and Tableau. Other data tools for library evaluation include Edge (Urban Libraries Council—California public libraries have free access through the State Library), Project Outcome (Public Library Association) and free public library data from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and the California State Library. The State Library offers support for libraries in utilizing the state data resources available to them.

The library director, library staff and the board should continually work together to ensure that library services are evaluated and planned based on community needs and aspirations. Trustees must endeavor to connect with stakeholders on a regular basis, to learn about the community, to foster the relationships needed to create partnerships, and to position themselves to provide critical information about library services, address misperceptions and clarify community benefits.

The knowledge gained from community connection should be incorporated into creating or updating the library’s formal strategic plan. A strategic plan, including a vision and mission, creates a map for the library’s journey rather than a rigid policy, identifying where to invest resources for maximum community benefit and impact. By an intensive effort to determine the specific needs, wants and strengths of the community during a formal strategic planning process, the library and the board can create a plan for tailored services and programs to best fulfill those needs. Strategic planning will help identify the library’s strengths and untapped opportunities, and ways to capitalize on existing community assets through partnership.

There are many ways to approach creating/updating a strategic plan. United for Libraries has created a practical guide for strategic planning. Many public libraries and library boards opt to use a consultant for strategic planning processes. The board can consult with neighboring libraries for recommendations through their cooperative library system, or through listservs or consultant directories.

4b. To hire and evaluate the library director (or assist in the process)

Hiring the library director – The library director makes decisions that significantly impact the quality of library services and the library’s financial future. The library board is charged with selecting the best person possible to make those decisions or, in the case of advisory boards, assisting the governing body to do so. Selecting a competent library director is the single most important act undertaken by the board.

In California, board responsibility for selecting a library director varies. Special library district governing boards have the power to act unilaterally in selecting the library director. Charter city governing boards have authority to appoint the library director. In most smaller city libraries operating under the general law, the library director serves at the pleasure of the city council or city manager. County librarians are appointed by the county administrator or board of supervisors. Depending on local practice, advisory boards may participate in the selection of the library director, and their involvement is important, as they are in a position to contribute a deeper knowledge of the library and the community.

The process of hiring a director is a joint venture with local governmental officials and human resources departments. Trustees should be aware of applicable laws and regulations and competitive salaries and benefits. The board should work closely with local government to assure effective communication and compliance with local hiring rules and regulations. The board should clarify, with local governmental officials and staff, the appropriate roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority for the recruitment, hiring process, timetable, and salary.

There are many authoritative, comprehensive resources available related to hiring a library director (see the resources for this section below. A general overview of the hiring process is included.

Evaluating the library director – A formal evaluation process provides the director with necessary feedback on job performance. It can be a tool for motivation, encouragement, coaching and direction. The process can provide the board with valuable information about the operations and performance of the library and help establish a record of unsatisfactory performance if there is cause for discipline or termination. It can also give the board and the director an opportunity to evaluate the director’s job description and adjust it if necessary.

The evaluation process should not be ignored. It protects both the director and the board in disciplinary cases. While most library director positions in California are FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) exempt and the incumbents serve at-will, it is not advisable for the board to simply terminate a director. This is because there are many grounds for wrongful termination lawsuits, including discrimination, retaliation, or violations of specific statutes or public policies. The board must be able to document that misconduct or performance issues occurred and that the director was put on notice of them as they occurred, to help avoid later claims that the termination was motivated by discrimination or other wrongful grounds.

There are a variety of evaluation methods with a wide range of criteria. The method of evaluation chosen should reflect local circumstances. Boards should work with local officials and human resources staff to ensure that their evaluation method conforms to local practices.

A formal method usually begins with the director and the board working together to develop a list of performance criteria based on goal completion, linked to the library’s strategic plan. Once criteria are set, the library director should periodically report to the board on progress toward meeting performance objectives and priorities, which may be adjusted periodically according to the library’s changing situation.

A formal evaluation should be held yearly. The board may request that the library director provide an annual summary including goals, accomplishments, and challenges, as a template for the board’s review. The board should reward good performance or work to correct inadequate performance. Evaluation should be continuous; performance problems with the director should be discussed at the time that they arise, along with possible solutions, rather than wait for the formal review.

4c. To develop and adopt policies (or make recommendations to the governing board) 

Policies are important tools used by library trustees and staff to provide effective service to the community. Policies reflect the library’s philosophy of service and explain the reasons for setting rules and limitations. A fair amount of the library board’s time will be spent considering, revising, and adopting (or recommending the adoption of) library policies.

A set of well-defined, well-written, reasonable, and current policies is important to a public library, because they form the framework of the library’s operation. They guide trustees and staff in carrying out their duties; help ensure quality service to meet community needs; communicate privileges and duties regarding library use to the public; help ensure fair treatment of library users and staff; and help ensure conformity to local, state, and federal laws.

Policy making is an organizational rather than a management tool, and works best with the involvement of trustees, library director and staff. The director can provide a foundation for the issue so the board can have a knowledgeable discussion. Staff can be given the responsibility to provide options, draft recommendations, and present them to the board for discussion and approval.

In creating or reviewing policies, the following questions should be considered:

  • How does this policy contribute to the mission and goals of the library?
  • What needs and reasons are there to change this policy or make a new one?
  • What are the possible positive and negative effects?
  • What are the estimated costs of implementing the policy (staff resources, building and equipment requirements)?
  • How will the public perceive this policy?
  • What are the legal implications of enacting and implementing the policy?
  • Is the policy realistically enforceable? (If it can’t be enforced, it shouldn’t be put in writing.)

Policies must be legally defensible. A legally defensible policy complies with current local, state, and federal laws; is reasonable; is clearly written and understandable; is publicly available for review and reference; is applied without discrimination; and is consistent with the library’s mission, vision, and strategic plan. The most common public challenges to policies are aimed at collections and internet use but making sure that every policy is legally defensible will protect the library and jurisdiction against liability. New policies and policy changes should be vetted by legal counsel before any final board discussion and approval.

Referring to the policies of other libraries for examples can be particularly useful when developing new policies or considering policy changes. The Resource Guide includes sample policies, lists of recommended policies, and other information on policy development.

4d. To approve/monitor the library budget and finances (or assist in the process)

In California library boards have varying responsibilities regarding the library’s finances and budget. Governing boards are legally responsible for the library’s budget and library financial oversight, while advisory boards do not have legal mandates for budget development or fiscal control. Depending on local practice, advisory boards do, however, often advise the library director and the governing body on budget proposals and finances.

All trustees should know where the money comes from and how much revenue can be built into the budget each year. A good understanding of revenue sources is important, as board members must encourage continued funding from those sources and identify new sources when needed.

Local finances. Most California public libraries work on annual budgets based on city or county allocations, or property or parcel tax allocations. The county law libraries are an exception, as they are funded through a portion of civil filing fees, meaning these libraries are largely supported by civil litigants and not by state and local taxes. Library friends/foundations groups raise money for library enhancements and programs. The California State Library’s publication, California Public Library Organization, provides a useful overview of operational and capital funding by public library type.

State level support. The State Library administers a number of state and federally funded financial support programs for California public libraries, including the California Library Services Act; the California Library Literacy Services Program; grant programs funded by federal Library Services and Technology Act and American Rescue Plan Act monies; and state funding for special initiatives such as broadband and library construction. The State Library also manages the California Grants Portal, a searchable database for competitive grant opportunities offered by California state agencies.

Federal and private support. Public libraries can apply directly to the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services for selected grant opportunities. Additional sources for learning about federal and foundation grant funding include the comprehensive federal website Grants.GovNational Endowment for the Humanities grants, and the Foundation Directory Online. More information and sources are included in the Resources Guide.

Budgeting. A budget is a plan for the expenditure of funds for the next year to carry out the library’s operation. The amount of funds available will dictate the extent to which the library can carry out its mission.

The board is responsible for ensuring that public funds are used in the community’s best interests and that the library has adequate financing for its programs and services. The budget plan should be clear, accurate, consistent, and comprehensive. Be aware that most governing bodies have policies that require that funds be held in reserve for capital replacement, to minimize adverse impacts from unanticipated expenditures, and to strengthen the financial stability of the library. This requirement must be observed as the budget is developed each year.

Depending on the type and size of the public library, its revenue streams, and local laws and practices, the board’s involvement in the budget process varies from simple to complex. See the Resources tabs below for some scenarios based on different types of California public libraries.

Budget monitoring. The board monitors library finances by helping develop, review, oversee and approve library expenditures to the extent allowed under its legal and implied powers, and develops and adopts (or advises on) policies for handling gifts and donations. The library director typically reports on expenditures and budget status at each board meeting.

Board engagement. The board should recognize that the library and library director need its engagement and support in budget matters. In California, library directors are usually government employees that report to the city or county and must remain neutral in budget deliberations. As trustees directly represent the people concerning library governance, they have a more tenable position to communicate with local officials on behalf of the library’s budget. Trustees can interpret the library’s plans for local leaders, explain how budget changes help the library align with community priorities, and interact to provide information about budget proposals in ways that the library director and staff cannot.

Ask yourself


What should serve as the foundation for everything done by the library and the board? Why?
What can you do to gather knowledge about your community?
Does your library have a strategic plan? If so, what are its goals? What is your library’s mission and vision?


Name some pitfalls to avoid in hiring a library director.
What are the current goals set by your board for the library director?
How does a formal evaluation process for the library director benefit and protect the board? The director? The library?


Why are library policies important?
What factors should be considered in setting policies for the library?
Who should be involved in policy development?
When should policies be vetted by legal counsel?


Where does your library’s funding come from?
How involved should your board be in developing the budget?
Where can you find information about grants?
What should a library board member do if he/she doesn’t understand part of the financial statement or doesn’t know the purpose of a particular expenditure?
What can your library board do if your library has a large unexpected expenditure?
Why is careful monitoring of expenditures so important?
Why is the board’s active support for the yearly budget process so important?

Resources for this section


Note: Policies from other states may need adaptation to conform to California state/local laws and guidance


California scenarios: the library board and the budget process (excerpt from Trustee Toolkit for Library Leadership, California Library Association)


Other principles