TRUSTEE TOOLKIT | MISSION
The many roles of the public library and the central mission of public library trustees.
Public libraries have long offered free access to books and other information resources. But in today’s environment they provide so much more. On a given day at the public library one might see:
- Children and caregivers engaging in library storytimes;
- Summer lunch being served to school children
- Teens getting homework help and connecting with friends
- Students using high-speed broadband to do academic research
- Immigrants learning about local resources and getting language skills
- People getting skills training and help in finding a job
- Entrepreneurs exploring how to create successful businesses;
- Veterans connecting to benefits and places to shelter
- People taking part in arts and cultural programming
- The unhoused being connected to shelter and community services
In a state where drought, wildfires and unpredictable weather have become the norm, many libraries also fill the critical roles of warming center, cooling center and clean air haven.
All these activities require resources, and library budgets are not unlimited. The central mission of the library board is to help identify and prioritize the programs and services needed by the community, and to help manage and develop the funds and partnerships needed to fulfill them, for the continous improvement of the public library.
A successful library board starts with engaged and informed trustees that understand and believe in the various roles of the public library that they serve. Library trustees come to their positions as community leaders with their own views on the public library and the services it should offer. They should challenge their assumptions and reach out to the library director and administration; to other trustees; to neighboring libraries; and to state and national experts and resources, to learn about the public library, what it does, and what it can be and do, recognizing the very real resources that it takes to provide library services.
Trustees should also be prepared to commit the time and effort needed to engage fully in the board process (prepare for, attend, and contribute to all board meetings; serve on committees; communicate with stakeholders; attend library programs; etc.). Being a trustee means holding a position in public trust; the people that trustees represent deserve the best job they can do.
What type of public library do I serve? Under which state law was it formed, and what are the local laws?
What is the central mission of the library board?
Name at least three reasons why legislators and residents should support your public library.
What can trustees consult regularly to keep informed about library issues?
What resources would you recommend to a new trustee, or someone interested in becoming a new trustee, to learn more about the public library?
How can you stay aware of city, county, and state news and issues, to see how they relate to the library?
Can you tell at least one story about how your public library has changed the lives of its users for the better?
Resources for this section
- California Library Association
- California State Library
- California cooperative library systems
- California Public Library Advocates
- American Library Association (ALA)
- United for Libraries (ALA division for trustees and library friends/foundations)
- Public Library Association (ALA division)
- Council of State Library Agencies (COSLA)
- Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL)
- Urban Libraries Council
- American Indian Library Association
- REFORMA (promoting library services to the Spanish-speaking)
- Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA)
- Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA)
- Value of California’s Public Libraries (California State Library, comprehensive work)
- Libraries Matter: Impact Research (American Library Association)
- Expect More (treatise by R. David Lankes, library scholar, educator and thought leader)
- Leadership Roles for Library Trustees (Urban Libraries Council)
- American Libraries magazine (American Library Association [ALA])
- Public Libraries magazine (Public Libraries Association)
- I Love Libraries newsletter (ALA )
- United for Libraries news & Twitter feeds
- ALA Center for the Future of Libraries trends page
- Other recent studies/articles on the role of the public library:
- “How Public Libraries Help Build Healthy Communities” (Brookings Institution)
- “Library As Infrastructure” (in Places, 2014)
- “Library Services in the Digital Age” (study by Pew Research)
- “The complicated role of the modern public library”, in Humanities (National Endowment for the Humanities)
- Board service readiness quiz (Build a Better Board)