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For Library Trustees

The role of a public library trustee can be exciting, challenging, and rewarding, but it also requires effort. Trustees have obtained this position because the elected officials of their municipality believe they have the ability and dedication to contribute positively to the management of the public library—one of the most accessible and beneficial institutions in a community. The municipal governing body has established the public library using laws from Chapter 43 of the Wisconsin Statutes, and this same chapter specifies the appointment procedure and the legal authority of the public library board. The job as a trustee, then, has significant statutory authority vested in it, making it a powerful and important position. The tasks involved in being a library trustee are varied; they are explained in more detail in the Trustee Essentials found below. For a public library board to function, it must include active, enthusiastic trustees who are prepared to do their part to make the board effective.

Principal Activities of Wisconsin Public Library Trustees

The general function of a public library trustee in Wisconsin is to participate as a member of a team-- in this case, the library board-- to protect and advance the interests of the broader community by effectively governing the operations and promoting the development of the local public library. Serving as a public library trustee takes serious commitment. This includes having the ability to attend and participate fully in board meetings, a willingness to become familiar with Wisconsin library laws, standards for libraries; an eagerness to understand the principles and practices of providing quality and equitable library service; and a strong commitment to freedom of expression and inquiry for all people.

The following are considered the principal activities of Wisconsin library boards. The successful library trustee will be proficient in these areas.

1. Understand the Roles and Laws Governing Wisconsin Public Libraries and Library Boards

Public libraries in our country and state are founded on the principle that, for a democracy to function properly, it must have an educated electorate, and to be educated, people must have free access to the broadest possible array of information. Libraries, along with other institutions such as the press and the judiciary, have long stood as protectors of the individual’s right to have the information required to thrive in and contribute to society. Regardless of these basic rights, people sometimes seek to limit the access of others to certain ideas and presentations. It is the responsibility of the library board, and each member of that board, to make a commitment to the community’s freedom of inquiry and expression, and to be prepared to address calmly and respectfully the challenges that may come to the library. While the board must have a carefully devised process for addressing challenges and speak in a single voice on censorship issues to the public and the media, it is up to each trustee to take the time to become informed about these principles and issues. While it is said that a public library without something to offend everyone is not doing its job, it is not the job of the library board to offend but, rather, to defend the rights of each citizen to search for their truth in their own journey. The nation’s and the library’s future relies on unrestricted access to information.

The following resources may provide assistance in understanding the roles and laws governing Wisconsin's public libraries:

See also:

2. Prepare for and Attend Regular Board meetings

The library board meeting provides the strongest setting for trustees to contribute to the development of the library. To get the most from the meetings and to be able to share skills and knowledge, trustees should do their best to attend every meeting. Prepared trustees will review the agenda and give thought to all issues and topics being discussed. While trustees are busy people, the full board should meet on a monthly basis to conduct business.

The following resources will help boards to develop, prepare for, and conduct effective and legal board meetings:

See also: 

3. Obtain Adequate Library Funding and Assist with the Library Budget

One of the library board’s most important responsibilities is to work to obtain adequate financial support so that the library can provide a meaningful program of services for the residents of the area. A trustee's focus should be on those services and what is required to provide them to the public in the most beneficial manner. Once a determination is made as to how much money will be needed, the request must be carefully and accurately prepared and then presented to the municipal governing body (village board, city council, town board, etc.). Trustees should attend the governing body meetings when budget requests are presented so that they can answer questions and explain how library funding benefits the community. After municipal funding has been approved, the library board must monitor the use of these public funds to assure that they provide what was intended. By law, only the library board has the authority to approve library expenditures.

The following resources may provide assistance in obtaining library funding and developing the library's budget:

See also:

4. Hire and Supervise the Library Director

Occasionally, the library board must hire a new director. How the process is conducted and who is finally selected will be among the most important decisions a library board will ever make. A library director can be around for many years and have a significant impact on the tone and quality of library service. In the one-person library, the library director often becomes the personification of the entire institution. Therefore, this task must be given serious consideration and each trustee should take an active role in both selecting and then welcoming and orienting the new director. Then the library board must establish a regular process for assessing the performance of the director and providing suggestions for improvements. Willingness as a trustee to participate in these processes will greatly contribute to the library’s overall effectiveness.

The following resources may provide assistance in hiring and supervising the library director:

See also:

5. Develop and Approve Library Policies

A library cannot operate successfully without policies that assure consistent and equitable treatment of all users while at the same time protecting the resources of the institution. Developing and adopting these policies is another important responsibility of a library board. Each trustee acts as a contact with other members of the community and has the chance to hear about concerns or desires relating to the library. The comments received from the public can help the board to address the community's standards through thoughtful and fair policies. Understanding the feelings of community members and the challenges of the staff can prepare trustees to participate with other board members and the director in defending policies that may provoke controversy. As needs, processes, and services change within the library, there will be a need to review, revise, and add policies. The board would be wise to establish a routine procedure for reviewing policies to be sure that they remain current and that trustees remain educated on the position of the library. 

It is important for library policies to be legal, as illegal policies can open your municipality to liability. The following four-prong test will help you to determine if your policy is legally defensible.

Test 1: A policy must comply with current statutes and case law.

Test 2: A policy must be reasonable (and all penalties must be reasonable).

Test 3: A policy must be clear (not ambiguous or vague).

Test 4: Policies must be applied without discrimination.

The following resources may provide assistance in developing and approving library policies:

  • Trustee Essential 10: Developing Essential Library Policies


6. Meet the Service Needs of the Community

As a community liaison, you are in a unique position to survey the community, learn of its needs and wants, and include those interests in discussions relating to library development. This opportunity and responsibility is satisfied at an informal and formal level. Informally, just being visible and accessible as a library trustee and communicating with your neighbors will allow you to gather important information about how the library can help its customers. In a more formal fashion, the library board may decide to conduct a community survey or call together a focus group to help it identify important issues. Active participation by each trustee at both levels will be invaluable to the library’s progress.

Working through the budget process, developing policies, studying community needs, and connecting with individuals and groups prepare a trustee for the process of formulating plans for the library’s future. A library may be accomplishing great things already, but as the world changes, the library must change with it. Trustees, as the citizen representatives with detailed information about how the library functions, are in an ideal position to assist with planning. Collectively, the board and library director work together to investigate different planning options and determine the most appropriate process for the library. Once proposed plans are approved by the board, a trustee can continue to participate by being active in the annual review of the library’s plan to keep the library on course. A plan is a means to an end, and the active participation of each trustee in the planning process will offer ongoing strength and insight to the library board as it pursues its responsibility for library development.

The following resources may provide assistance in meeting the service needs of the community:

  • Trustee Essential 11: Planning for the Library’s Future
  • Trustee Essential 12: Library Standards
  • DPI Planning & Evaluation Resources
  • Trustee Essential 20: The Library Board and Building Accessibility
  • Trustee Essential 21: The Library Board and Accessible Services

See also:


7. Advocate for the Library

A library advocate is someone who understands the value and importance of public library service and who communicates that value and importance to the community, government leaders, and other decision-makers. A trustee's primary function as a library advocate is to provide clear, accurate, and timely information on library issues to people who need it in order to make sound decisions on those issues. 

Libraries need their trustees to act as advocates for several reasons. Pressures on local, county, and state budgets make it harder than ever for libraries to obtain adequate funding. As a representative of the general public, a trustee can make a more effective case on the importance of adequate library funding than the librarian, who may be viewed as having a vested interest in a larger budget. Because public libraries have a unique place in local government with greater autonomy than other departments, their needs may not be as readily understood by government officials as those of other units of government, and a greater effort is needed to tell the library story.

The following resources may provide assistance in advocating for the library:

Trustee Essential 13: Library Advocacy

Trustee Essentials: A Handbook for Wisconsin Public Library Trustees

Trustee Essentials cover image

The Trustee Essentials cover the basic information needed by trustees to serve their communities effectively. Almost every module includes sources of additional information that can help with an issue or question that was not addressed. The Trustee Essentials may be used for both new trustee orientations and short continuing education sessions during library board meetings.