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2. Scope

The library board’s powers and its role compared to those of the library director and library friends/foundation groups.

To be effective, trustees must understand the scope of their board’s powers. Without this understanding, trustees may end up misusing their time on issues over which they have no real control.

In California, public libraries are the responsibility of local government. Localities are not required to form public libraries, but there are a number of state laws and constitutional provisions under which they may do so. These laws outline discrete types of governance, funding, and service areas, and are permissive rather than proscriptive in nature. Public library laws and rules, including those concerning library boards, vary significantly throughout the state, depending on the type of public library and local laws and practices.

Types of public libraries in California

In California, there are five types of public libraries, as follows:

  • County libraries. County libraries are organized under the County Free Library Law (Education Code §19100-19180). The County Service Area Law (Government Code §25210- 25217.4) allows for the creation of a separate legal entity for library services, but in practice this law is used to create a separate funding mechanism for unincorporated areas within an existing county library system.
  • City libraries. City libraries are organized under the Municipal Library Law (Education Code §18900-18965), or for charter cities, under the constitutional “home rule doctrine” (California Constitution Article XI, §3), pursuant to a charter adopted by the city’s voters.
  • Independent special district libraries. Independent special district libraries may be organized under one of the following laws: The Library District Law (Education Code §19400-19532); The Library and Museum District Law (for unincorporated towns and villages; Education Code §19600-19734); Unified School Districts/Union High School Districts Public Libraries Law (Education Code §18300-18571); and the Community Services District (CSD) Law (Government Code §61000-61250).
  • Joint powers of authority (JPA) libraries. JPA libraries operate by agreement between the governing boards of two or more governmental entities, pursuant to the Joint Exercise of Powers Act (Government Code §6500-6599.3). A member of a JPA may also be organized separately as a county, city, or independent special district library.
  • County law libraries were legally designated as public libraries by the state of California in 2015 (Government Code §19307). These libraries are formed under the County Law Library Law (Business and Professions Code §6300-6363).

The Resources Guide has a table that shows the types of public libraries in California, the state laws under which they are formed, and typical library board characteristics as outlined in state law.

Types of library boards

There are two main types of library boards: governing and advisory.

governing board is either elected by the general population or appointed by the jurisdictional government. An advisory board may be appointed or elected. The main difference between them is that a governing board always has the legal responsibility for hiring and evaluating the library director and for the library’s finances, while an advisory board does not.

Additional duties for governing boards include determining the mission, vision, and strategic plan for the library; setting the policies governing the library; and providing general administrative oversight (board responsibilities will be covered in depth later). But in many cases some or most of these functions may be handled by an advisory board, as the power and authority of a California library advisory board may fall anywhere along a continuum from advisory to nearly governing in nature.

The library board’s powers are mostly determined by local law and by the understanding established over time between the board and the local jurisdiction. For a full picture of the legal basis of their powers, trustees should consult their local ordinances, bylaws, and their board’s legal counsel.

The role of the board vs. the role of the library director

Library boards must understand their role vs. that of the library director. The library director has the delegated responsibility for managing the library and its daily operations. It is the director’s responsibility, not the board’s, to hire and supervise the library staff, manage the library collection, implement programming, supervise day-to-day operations, apply policies, and oversee procedures. The board should follow the “golden guidelines” when working with the library director and staff:

  • Boards should not try to run or manage their libraries; they should provide oversight (or advice, in the case of advisory boards). Micromanaging is a temptation board members must avoid.
  • Individual board members have no authority; authority lies with the board as a whole.
  • Boards should always support the library director and library staff in public.
  • Boards should not disregard advice or suggestions from the library director out of hand.
  • Boards should never serve as a communication link between the staff and the director; the community and the staff; the jurisdictional government and the library. These are all the responsibility of the library director.

The board and the director should work cooperatively, not competitively. Neither should try to undermine the other. Both should remember their ultimate purpose: to serve the needs of their community.

The role of the board vs. the role of library friends/foundations groups

Public library friends groups are independent organizations created to support the work of the library and board of trustees. These groups focus on fundraising, advocacy, and volunteer work. Library friends groups should have a separate and distinct corporate existence, with separate federal tax exemption and funding. Depending on local needs, library friends may, for example:

  •    Create public support and awareness for the library and its programs
  •    Raise funds to support items not in the library budget
  •    Work for library legislation or increased appropriations
  •    Sponsor and support library programs and events
  •    Volunteer to work in the library, or on library-related projects

Library foundations are usually established when there is a need to solicit major contributions for capital projects or large-scale programs for the library. Foundations tend to be more complex than friends groups in their legal organization due to tax laws and regulations.

Trustees should work cooperatively with library friends and foundations. The board may consider including representatives from these groups and having them report or present at board meetings.


Ask yourself

What type of public library do I serve? Under which state law was it formed, and what are the local laws?
On which type of library board do I serve (governing or advisory)? What are the primary differences between – these types?
What is the most important thing for trustees to remember in working with the library director?
What is the primary role of a library friends or foundation group? How does it compare to the role of my library board?

Resources for this section


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