Trust in Your Trustees

By Will Manley

Reprinted with permission by American Libraries, October 30, 2012

 

Politicians prefer your board’s views on library needs over yours

It frustrates me profoundly to have someone in the library profession approach me at a conference to challenge my credibility as a speaker—usually in view of the fact that I’m retired, out of touch, and behind the times. In other words, I’m no longer actively involved in library matters. 

My defense is immediate. I explain that while I may be retired from the administrative wars, I now play an even more important library position: I am a trustee. Inevitably the response is both derisive and dismissive: “Trustees aren’t really a part of our profession, are they?”

While that rejoinder really bugs me, I have to grudgingly admit that it does carry a certain element of truth. Quite frankly, trustees do not belong to the library “tribe.” But that is precisely why they are the most important players in the public library arena.

Here’s a quiz: What are the three main duties of a library board of trustees? If you answered (a) hire and fire the director, (b) make library policy, and (c) secure library funding, you are correct. Everything else they do, from attending meetings to approving minutes, is strictly secondary.

Of their three main duties, securing funding is by far the most critical. Trustees can be much more effective fundraisers than librarians, precisely because they are outside the library tribe. They don’t know the secret library handshake, the litany of obscure library acronyms, or the meaning of the terms “autoregressive bibliographical interface,” “triangulated title access,” or “multipolycentric reference control.” Heck, most of them haven’t a clue what OCLC stands for.

Does that make them aliens from outer space? No, that puts them on the same level as the local politicians who control the library purse strings. Point one: Local politicians hate to be talked down to by professionals. It doesn’t matter if it’s the police chief, city engineer, or library director. Every profession has its mumbo jumbo jargon that makes laypeople feel stupid and out of the loop—something local politicians hate to feel. Point two: When library directors go hat in hand to the city council to ask for departmental budget hikes, what do council members see? They see special interest professionals who want to feather their tribal nests.

But when library trustees do it, council people see constituents: bankers, salesmen, nurses, plumbers, and homemakers. They see their next door neighbor, their child’s soccer coach, a congregant from their church, a high school classmate. They see registered voters—the folks who will determine whether they get reelected. And don’t kid yourself: Getting reelected is job one for every politician.

Many years ago, I became director of a good-sized library, filling a months-long vacancy. Before I was hired, the board was forced to get very involved in the library budget process, and my first week as director happened to be budget week. The entire board of trustees appeared before the city council to plead for three new librarian positions. The next week was election week. The board was unsuccessful in getting the three positions—the council granted it five.

After the meeting, the police chief came up to me and asked, “How do I get one of those boards of trustees?”

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and in nine books on the lighter side of library science. Contact him at wmanley7[at]att.net.