Tools for Trustees — The Workshop

A three-hour workshop for your board(s) of trustees, based on the Tools for Trustees manual.

II. THE IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC LIBRARIES

The contributions of public libraries to our democracy, our formal education, our lifelong learning, and our information-driven society may be too numerous to list. However, trustees can be most effective at telling the library story when they have thought about and articulated the many benefits our libraries provide. This section helps put into words some of the social, economic, cultural, recreational, and educational benefits of this longstanding institution. Appendix E contains one attempt to list social and economic benefits of public libraries.

Because libraries are such established institutions, people often take for granted that they will always exist. But in most communities, libraries must compete with many other essential community services for tax funds. Although some libraries collect a substantial percentage of their revenue from fundraising activity, private sources, or grants, these revenue streams can never (nor should they) fully support the many functions public libraries perform. Areas of impact generally include the following:

Education

The public library is often called “the people’s university” because it is available to all, regardless of age, skill level, or ability to pay. School children depend on the public library for books and materials that supplement those of the school library and for library access when school libraries are closed. Some libraries offer homework help and other student services in addition to supplementary resources.

The library may even choose to partner with local educational institutions in support of their curricula: preschool, K-12, and/or postsecondary institutions (e.g., technical schools, colleges, universities).

Information

The public library contains resources to answer most questions and can provide answers to such diverse inquiries as:
What is the capital of Montana?
How do I get chewing gum out of upholstery?
What is the current literacy rate in our county?
What is the address of my U. S. Senator?

Genealogists use local and family history collections, and some public libraries serve as the repository for preserving the area’s local history and heritage. Information staff members help individuals find answers by showing them how to use reference books or how to narrow and refine their Internet searches to get authoritative, relevant information.

Lifelong Learning

Public libraries are essential for the development of language skills in preschool children. Many parents cannot afford to buy books for their children, and in any case, could not supply the extensive and varied collection that the library offers. Often, the library provides special story programs for young children that foster a love of reading and learning from an early age. People of all ages can pursue self-directed learning at public libraries. Library staff members can help individuals plan a program of study in an area of interest—for example, to learn backyard astronomy, read the great works of literature, or become an expert gardener.

Recreation

From popular movies to “beach reads” to craft books, libraries offer a wealth of opportunities for recreational reading, viewing, and listening. School-age children often rely on the public library for their leisure reading, because the collections and services of school libraries are by definition curriculum-oriented. Public library recreational offerings may also include special programs, author visits, movie nights, and other opportunities.

The Library as Gathering Place

Increasingly, people are using the public library as a neutral place to gather—for socializing, networking, or working together on school projects or community issues. The library may sponsor a candidate forum or community discussion on an issue of current interest. People involved in small business sometimes meet clients at the library. Tutors may meet students or adult learners. Community groups use public meeting rooms. Book discussion or writing groups may come together at the library.

Other

Other service responses may be chosen by the library to meet specific community needs. For example, providing cultural awareness activities may be an important role for libraries serving diverse populations. The library may choose to focus heavily on services to business, be active in teaching basic literacy skills, or offer extensive genealogy and local history services. It could devote a major share of resources to helping people learn to find, evaluate, and select valid and accurate information.

Regardless of the specific services emphasized by the local library, it is critical that trustees be able to articulate the value of the library to its users and, perhaps more importantly, to the funding authorities, local leaders, and the community at large.