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AE 11: The Library as Employer

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • Role of the board and role of the director
  • Legal issues in hiring and employment
  • Lines of communication
  • Board meetings on personnel issues
  • Staff compensation
  • Promotions
  • Personnel policy
  • Library employee unions
  • Grievance procedures

The most important determinant of library service quality is the training, experience, attitude, and motivation of the library staff. Developing and maintaining a high-quality library staff requires careful decision-making and cooperation by both the library board and the library director.

Role of the board and role of the director

The library board is charged with the responsibility of hiring and supervising the library director, and the board's responsibilities extend to issues that affect all library staff (see Trustee Essential #5: Hiring a Library Director ) and Trustee Essential #6: Evaluating the Director. But it is the library director who hires and supervises all other library staff, although the library board has the legal responsibility to establish their duties, and compensation.

While both the library board and the library director have significant personnel responsibilities, the library will operate most effectively if the two parties cooperate and communicate on important personnel matters, while avoiding intrusion into each other's area of responsibility. Keep in mind that:

  • The library director can and should recommend personnel policy changes, but can implement only policies officially approved by the board.
  • The library director has the authority to hire staff to fill positions authorized by the library board and to supervise those staff, but should keep the library board informed of important personnel issues and consult with the board, if possible, before making significant personnel decisions.
  • The library board has the legal responsibility to approve job descriptions and compensation plans, but the director should have latitude to set compensation and make personnel changes within that framework.
  • The library will run most effectively when the director is delegated the responsibility for the day-to-day assignment of staff duties although

If a trustee repeatedly approaches library staff for information on library operations or try to direct the activities of the staff, ask the library board president to discuss the matter with the trustee. If the board president is interfering inappropriately in day to day operations, you should bring the matter up with the board president or direct your concerns to other members of the board. Another less direct approach is to schedule a discussion at a board meeting about Trustee Essential 2: Who Runs the Library? and use the discussion as a forum to address your concern.

Legal issues in hiring and employment

The library director should detailed job descriptions for each position. These should be approved by the library board after being reviewed for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (, the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and Wisconsin's equal rights provisions and Fair Employment Law. The job descriptions should be reviewed and updated at regular intervals, particularly before filling a new or vacant position.

The ADA requires reasonable accommodations in three areas of employment. The first involves the job application process. People with disabilities may only be asked questions asked of all applicants. Certain types of questions are not allowed. For instance, all applicants should be told the essential job functions and then asked whether there was any reason why they could not do perform those functions. But it would not be acceptable to single out someone who uses a wheelchair and ask how that person would do a particular task.

Examples of questions that can and cannot be asked during an interview are included at the "Access for All" web site maintained by Cornell University (see below). The site defines "essential functions" as "fundamental job duties of the employment position the individual holds or desires. The term does not include the marginal functions of the position." Job descriptions should be written so that the essential functions are clear. If pre-employment testing is required, then accommodations must be made, if needed, for people to take the test.

The second area requires reasonable modification or adjustments to the work environment or job procedures and rules, to allow a qualified person with a disability to do the work. The library is not required to eliminate an essential job function in making an accommodation, nor is an employer required to lower production standards. A reasonable accommodation might be removing a barrier, modifying a workstation, restructuring the job or schedule, acquiring a piece of adaptive equipment or technology, or reassignment to another vacant position for which the individual is qualified. But the employer does not have to make an accommodation that would impose an "undue hardship," defined as an "action requiring significant difficulty or expense." Nor are expected to provide personal items not available to other employees (such as wheelchairs or prostheses), but certain accommodations might be expected, such as adjustable chairs, wrist pads, or modified phones.

The third area requires equal access to whatever insurance and benefits are offered to other employees. The ADA also requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to make available the "benefits and privileges of employment" to employees with disabilities that are enjoyed by other employees. Examples are access to lounges, auditoriums, training facilities, parties, or services.

The U.S. Department of Justice page on the ADA is:

U.S. Department of Labor compliance assistance with the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act:

Lines of communication

Library staff members are supervised by the library director, or, when appropriate, by department heads or supervisors in the library's hierarchy. While the library director reports to and is supervised by the library board, library staff should report to the director or to others under the director's direct supervision.

While trustees will want to know who the library employees are and what they think about the library and its policies, services and collections, trustees must be very careful to avoid undermining the authority of the director. Except in unusual circumstances, communication between the board and staff about library business should be carried on through the library director.

Since the library board may want input from the staff on certain issues, the board should solicit such input through the director. Similarly, if the board requires input from the staff during the process of evaluating the library director, the information should be collected in a consistent manner using specific questions.

Board meetings on personnel issues

In addition to the library board's review of the library director, there may come occasions where personnel issues must be brought before the board. While most library board business must be conducted in open session, there are occasions where the board may convene in closed session to discuss specific personnel issues.

The library board should annually review the performance and compensation of the library director and can do so in closed session. Wisconsin Statutes s. 19.85(1)(c) permits convening in closed session for "Considering employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility."

The board may also convene in closed session to consider disciplinary actions, with certain limitations. The provision in s. 19.85(1)(b) permits a closed session for the purpose of "Considering dismissal, demotion¿or discipline of any public employee" and taking formal action, with one caveat. The employee must be formally notified of the hearing and any meeting at which final action may be taken. The notice must state that the employee has the right to demand that the evidentiary hearing or meeting be held in open session.

Keep in mind that the language of the exemptions to the open meetings law specifically refers to a "public employee," not to a position of employment in general. Consequently, the library board cannot convene in closed session to discuss a position vacancy, benefits and compensation for employment, or personnel policies for positions in general, unless for the specific purpose of discussing strategy for collective bargaining (s. 19.85(1)(e)). But the board can convene in closed session to discuss the qualifications of and compensation to offer a specific candidate for a job opening. Also, ratification or final approval of a collective bargaining agreement must be done in open session.

The library board may also need to consider a personnel issue as part of a grievance process. Your library personnel policy should clearly state how grievances may be brought and the process to be followed. Generally speaking, employees should bring matters of concern about the physical environment in which the employee works, and conditions of the specific position, procedures to be followed, relationships with other workers or supervisors, and library rules and regulations to the attention of the library director. Occasionally, an employee may be unsatisfied after bringing complaints to the director and may feel that further action should be taken. In such circumstances an appeal to the library board is appropriate. Sometimes the library director is the problem, or part of the problem, that an employee wishes to address, and the situation is of a sensitive nature or involves serious legal concerns. In such cases, a grievance should be addressed in writing to the library board president who can then take up the matter with the library board at the next board meeting or at a special session. The meeting may be conducted in closed session if it meets the requirements of the exemptions to the open meetings law.

Additional information on library board meetings and the open meetings law can be found in Administrative Essential #19, "Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law" and in Trustee Essential 14, "The Library Board and the Open Meetings Law."

Staff compensation

The ability to attract and retain high-quality staff depends partially on competitive and fair wages and benefits for library staff. Compensation for employees should be competitive with compensation provided by similar-sized libraries in Wisconsin and nationwide (see the Sources of Additional Information section below for sources of this data). Compensation for library staff should be in line with other community positions that require similar training and responsibilities.

Justifying and obtaining adequate and competitive compensation for library staff can be challenging, particularly in a tight municipal economy. Sometimes the work of library employees is misunderstood or under-appreciated. The Allied Professional Association of ALA has information and a toolkit that is useful in establishing and justifying competitive compensation plans to boards, municipal government, and the public.


It is not unusual for a library to promote an existing employee into a vacancy rather than to advertise broadly and hire a candidate from outside the organization. It is good to give existing employees opportunity for advancement, and many collective bargaining agreements will stipulate that positions must be posted within the organization before being advertised. However, be sure that you follow established hiring procedures and that the employee being promoted meets the minimum qualifications required for the job description for the position. Past evaluations should also document that the employee being promoted has better than average performance, since promotion can be considered a reward for good job performance.

Personnel policy

It is the responsibility of the library board to approve a personnel policy for library staff that formally establishes compensation and benefit policies, as well as rules and conditions of employment for library staff. The policy should include the mission statement of the library, employment expectations, staff development and continuing education opportunities, and evaluation and discipline processes, including termination and grievance procedures. It is important for these policies to be gathered into a written personnel handbook available to all library staff. The policy must be kept up-to-date and regularly reviewed by the library board. These written policies ensure that all employees are treated according to the same rules.

Many state and federal laws govern the relationship between employer and employee, and it is essential that the library's personnel policy comply with these laws. (For more information, see Trustee Tool A: Important State and Federal Laws Pertaining to Public Library Operations.) Your municipality or county may have a personnel department that keeps up to date on these laws. Knowledgeable individuals should review all proposed changes in the personnel policy as well as all job descriptions. To simplify maintenance of their personnel policies, many library boards adopt the personnel policy of their municipality as the library personnel policy, subject to those changes approved by the library board.

The library board should also approve a salary schedule that covers all staff and written job descriptions that list the essential job duties of each position, any educational and experience required, the physical and mental requirements of the job, and the salary range. Carefully prepared job descriptions not only will help the library comply with Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which deals with employment issues, but also provide an objective basis for performance evaluation to support promotion or discipline. For more information about the employment-related requirements of the ADA including a sample job description, see Trustee Essential #5: Hiring a Library Director.

Sample personnel policies are available from the Wisconsin Public Library Policy Resource Web Page.

Library employee unions

The right to bargain collectively is guaranteed by federal and state law. The library board must not take actions that interfere with library employees' legal collective bargaining rights. No library administrator or board should seek to prevent an election or the formation of a bargaining unity, and certain rules must be followed if a majority of the library staff wishes to engage in collective bargaining.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB,, is the Federal agency that administers the National Labor Relations Act. It is charged conducting elections to determine whether or not employees want union representation, and with investigating and remedying unfair labor practices by employers and unions. Labor and management both have the right to petition the NLRB if either believes that an irregularity or a violation of labor practices has occurred.

In Wisconsin, collective bargaining practices are subject to rulings by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC, The WERC has ruled on a number of occasions that the library board (and not the municipality) is considered the "employer" of library employees for collective bargaining purposes. Therefore, it is the library board (or a designee of the library board acting under library board supervision) that negotiates with any union(s) representing library employees. An individual familiar with Chapter 43, library board concerns, and collective bargaining law should handle all labor negotiations on behalf of the board. Knowledgeable individuals should assist in the development of library board collective bargaining strategy. The library board must ratify any union agreements involving library employees.

The library board may not abrogate or delegate its legal responsibilities for establishing library policies and personnel policies or for determining the duties and compensation of all library staff. In addition, the library board may not take away the library director's legal authority to hire and supervise all other library staff.

The library board may wish to employ the services of an experienced labor negotiator. Designating a member of the board or the library director as the chief negotiator may be unwise since it is unlikely that person will be familiar with the intricacies of labor law, whereas the bargaining unit will be represented by a professional negotiator employed by the union. The director or board member may also be placed in an adversarial role or take requested changes under negotiations as personal criticism. The friction across the bargaining table may translate to the work environment and affect the rapport required to effective manage day-to-day operations.

Library directors, as well as trustees, may be uncomfortable working with third-party labor negotiators, fearing the negotiator will offer concessions unacceptable to management. But negotiations follow a clearly established procedure, with the negotiator's powers clearly delineated. Typically, the negotiator reviews proposals submitted by the bargaining unit with the library administration, the board, or a subset of both, depending on how the board delegates responsibilities for negotiating. And any final proposal has to be formally ratified by the library board in an open meeting.

If negotiations reach an impasse, typically the two parties will agree to mediation, followed by binding arbitration if an agreement cannot be reached. The American Arbitration Association (AAA, is an independent nonprofit organization offering resolution of a wide range of disputes through mediation, arbitration, elections and other out-of-court settlement techniques. AAA maintains mediators and panels of disinterested parties who have qualifications in a wide range of specialties, familiar with precedents that have been established through negotiations in similar settings, such as public libraries.

Grievance procedures

The board should establish a grievance or complaint procedure within the personnel policy to address staff complaints about employment issues. Trustees should direct employees who have complaints about the director, policies, or operations to discuss the situation first with their supervisor or the director. If that does not resolve the issue, staff should be encouraged to follow the established policy. Only in extreme situations should staff complaints go directly to the board.

Sources of additional information

The Allied Professional Association of ALA (

Christopher, Connie, Empowering Your Library: a Guide to Improving Service, Productivity, & Participation. Chicago: American Library Association, 2003.

Contains chapters on motivation, creating shared vision and trust, the manager's role, interpersonal and team skills, and empowered library leadership.

Evans, G. Edward, Performance Management and Appraisal: a How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians, New York, Neal-Schuman, 2004.

Concentrates on the performance appraisal process, background, different methods and attributes. Includes a CD-ROM with appraisal forms in Word and PDF formats.

Position Classifications for Public Libraries, Wisconsin Association of Public Libraries, Personnel and Professional Concerns Committee

Practical Help for New Supervisors, Third Edition, Chicago, American Library Association, 1997.

Survey has chapters by various authors on such topics as Interviewing, orientation, performance appraisal, nonmonetary rewards, communication skills, conducting meetings, time management, diversity, and conflict resolution.

Salary and Fringe Benefit Survey, Wisconsin Association of Public Libraries, Personnel and Professional Concerns Committee

Staff Development: A Practical Guide, Third Edition, Chicago, American Library Association, 2001.

Provides guidelines and methods to develop a staff development program, determining goals and competencies, developing trainers, and conducting programs.

Trotta, Marcia, Successful Staff Development: a How-To-Do-It Manual, New York, Neal Schuman, 1995

Wisconsin Public Library Policy Resource Web Page at

Administrative Essential: A Handbook for Wisconsin Public Library Directors was prepared by the Division for Libraries and Technology. © Copyright 2008 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Duplication and distribution for not-for-profit purposes permitted with this copyright notice.

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