Tools for Trustees — The Workshop

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


Trustees make many rewarding contacts with a variety of others during their terms. This section covers the roles of some of those individuals and groups and their relationships with the library board.


The library director and the board of trustees must be in partnership to develop and maintain the best library system possible. An understanding of their respective roles by both parties is essential. The board does not manage the library or dictate procedure; likewise, the director does not establish library policy, which is a governance responsibility.

Georgia law (in Appendix C) provides a relatively detailed description of the duties of the library trustees (Section 20-5-43) and the director (Section 20-5-45). Because interpretations may vary, directors and library boards should have conversations to clarify their understanding of which activities are management and which are governance responsibilities before issues arise.

Open communication between director and board will help prevent misunderstandings and help ensure good working relationships. Trustees should remember that the director works for the board as a whole, not the individual board members.

Staff and Volunteers

While it is natural for board members to know and be friendly with library staff and volunteers, upholding the chain of command in the organization is extremely important. Allowing staff members to complain or report directly to board members is an invitation to chaos and undermines the director’s authority as chief of operations.

The board should establish a procedure for grievances of staff, but in no instance should staff members be encouraged to contact the board directly. Most grievances will stop with the director, who will make the final decision. In the case of alleged human rights violations or sexual harassment by the director, there should be a third party to whom the staff can appeal, for example, a board attorney.

The Community

Trustees must consider themselves the chief advocates for the library system. There are many opportunities to talk about the library to others—at the grocery store, at church, or at community or club meetings. A good trustee never misses a chance to remind the community about all the wonderful services the library has to offer and to promote the library as an important partner in solving community problems.

Sometimes community members address their praise, complaints, or inquiries about the library to trustees. It is important that the director be informed about all community feedback. Because trustees are not involved in day-to-day management and procedures, it is usually appropriate to refer the person with questions or complaints to the director for clarification. In other situations, the trustee might get information from the director, then follow up with the community member.

Friends and Foundations

Sometimes the relationship between boards of trustees and other library support groups is confusing. Several groups may give time and energy to support and advocate for the library system, but only the library system board of trustees has governing authority.

Friends of the Library groups are separate member-ship organizations with their own treasury, board, and officers. Friends exist solely to support library needs and can provide funds for items that are not within the library’s regular operating budget. Friends can also help promote library services in the community, provide volunteer assistance, and advocate for the library at budget time.

Some library systems also have library foundations that are governed by separate boards. Library foundations are usually established to solicit and manage large donations or endowments. Foundation gifts to the library are sometimes restricted-use, such as for capital improvements.

It is important that all of these groups work together, especially since the public often has a difficult time distinguishing between them. There may be a Memorandum of Understanding or other document that specifies the roles and responsibilities of the various library support groups. This can help ensure that the various groups are working toward common aims. Appendix W provides a sample of such a document.

The governing library board of trustees sets library policy, employs the director, steers the library system, and keeps it on course; other groups exist solely to support the library system with fundraising and advocacy.

Local Funding Authorities and Political Leaders

Trustees are very effective library advocates, because they have demonstrated their belief in the value of the public library by volunteering to help lead it. Good relationships with the funding authorities and political leaders in the community are essential to ensure adequate and continuing support for library programs and services.

Board members should attend meetings of the local funding authorities regularly, wearing visible identification of their library trustee positions. Every member of the library board should make a habit of regularly communicating with her or his appointing official about the library.

As liaisons between the library and the community, trustees are in a unique position to identify and develop other local advocates for the library system. These individuals can come from Friends of the Library groups, organizations in which the trustee is active, institutions that have related missions (such as schools, colleges, bookstores, the media), the trustee’s neighborhood, or the community at large. The objective is to identify and educate as many library supporters as possible who are willing to speak out about the importance of the library to the community and who have credibility with the officials who control library appropriations.

At election time, it is important for trustees to ask all candidates for their positions regarding support of the public library. Candidates who go on record as library supporters during election campaigns will have a more difficult time cutting the library budget later!

Fellow Board Members

Of course, respect for all members of the board of trustees is a must. If the board is representative of the full community and is doing its job to thoroughly explore and discuss issues, there will inevitably be disagreements. Dissension should not be discouraged, as it will help the board make better decisions, ones that include consideration of all viewpoints represented. Once the board has made a decision, all board members must uphold the decision publicly. The board must speak with one voice to the community.

The Media

Who speaks for the library? Often this question does not come up until a reporter calls. Board policy should specify this responsibility to ensure a consistent message to the public—and to reduce board liability. An individual board member may not speak for the board unless he or she has been authorized by board action.

Usually, the director, as chief executive officer, is the spokesperson for the library, but there may be situations in which the board chair or another individual has been authorized to speak for the library or the board.

When a representative of the media calls, everyone involved should know who has been designated to answer.