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AE 15: Policies and Procedures

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • Typical library policies
  • Policy development steps
  • Legally defensible policies
  • Policy versus procedure
  • Policies for Results
  • Policy Audit
  • Policy and procedure manuals

Policies establish a framework for efficient library operations, with clear directions for staff to operate the library. Understandable rules and regulations for the public also promote equitable use of the library's facility and collections.

As the library director, you may have started your job with a set of policies already in place. Or you may have discovered that the previous director and the library board gave inadequate attention to the library's policies and failed to review them regularly. Or perhaps few policies were in place and those gave no indication of when they had been adopted or reviewed. Occasionally directors discover that commonly accepted staff procedures do not consistently mesh with established policies. In such cases, the director should encourage the library board to review existing policies and consider others that may be appropriate to local needs.

The library board is responsible for adopting policies that govern the operation of Wisconsin public libraries. Wis Stats 43.42(2) provides that "Every public library shall be free for the use of the inhabitants" . . . "subject to such reasonable regulations as the library board prescribes in order to render its use most beneficial to the greatest number. The library board may exclude from the use of the public library all persons who willfully violate such regulations."  Furthermore, Wisconsin law establishes that the library board has exclusive charge and control of the library budget and of the library facility and property. In addition, the library board hires the library director and establishes the duties and compensation of library employees.  The board may wish to consider and develop policies for

  • the public's use of the library and its resources
  • the staff and director's duties in operating the library and maintaining the collection
  • the conditions of employment and benefits for library personnel

Although the library board adopts policies, it is often the library director who is called upon to recommend policy and create drafts for the library board's consideration. Not only will the library director be involved with the policy development, but it will also be the director's responsibility to disseminate the resulting policies and implement procedures to carry them out.

It may seem like there will be little time left to do anything else in the library, but policy development and administration does not have to consume an inordinate amount of time. When done well, the resulting policies and procedures actually streamline library operations and save time otherwise spent unraveling problems.

Typical library policies

Typical policies might include:

  • Personnel (including grievance process, and utilization of library volunteers). Because of their complexity, the library board may wish to adopt the municipality's personnel policy and then delineate where the library's policy differs.
  • Circulation (loan periods and renewal policies, holds and reserves, fines and damage charges, process for recovering overdue materials, confidentiality of patron records, inter-library loan, equipment lending)
  • Collection Development (encompassing materials selection scope; responsibilities for selection; range and priorities for collection development; withdrawal of obsolete materials; gift and donation policy; censorship and reconsideration of library materials)
  • Patron conduct (food and drink, harassment or threatening behavior, noise, unattended children)
  • Facilities (including meeting room use, public notices and displays, hours of operation, security emergency procedures, and use of the copier and other equipment)
  • Computer and Internet use

How many policies a library adopts and how they are sub-divided is up to the library board to determine based on the size of the library, the range of services, and local circumstances. The board and director may wish to review policy manuals from other libraries to establish the method for organizing most appropriate for the locality.

Policy development steps

The following basic steps provide for careful development and review of library policies:

  1. Director, with staff (and perhaps public) input, identifies need and develops recommended policies.
  2. Board discusses, revises (if necessary), and approves policies.
  3. Director makes sure staff and public are aware of policies.
  4. Director and staff enforce policies uniformly.
  5. Board reviews policies on a regular cycle so all policies are reviewed regularly.

The frequency of review for individual policies may also vary depending on local circumstances, but policies should be reviewed regularly, at least every three years. Perhaps one or two policies could be reviewed at each library board meeting until all of the policies have been considered, and, if necessary, revised. It is important that the library board approve all policies in properly noticed public meetings (see Administrative Essential #19: Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law for details) before the policies are implemented and enforced.

In consideration of policy matters, it is important that you give adequate time and attention to the many complex issues that may be involved. All library policies should promote the best interests of the community and be consistent with the library's mission and long-range plan. You should be satisfied that a policy is legal, clear, reasonable, and can be applied without discrimination (see "Legally defensible policies" below). Consider all ramifications, including the possible affect on the public image of the library—good policies should be in the public interest and promote a positive public image of the library.

After a new policy is established, it is important that the policy be clearly documented and disseminated to the staff and public. It is helpful to organize all library policies into a policy manual available to all staff and readily available to all library users. If the policy will alter or affect the public's use of the library (such as a reduction in hours open, or a substantial change to the fine policy), consider posting the change prominently or issuing a press release to publicize the change. Many libraries are now posting their policies on their web sites to help make the public more aware of the library's services and policies (see for examples).

Although disagreements during the development of policies are natural, all library staff and trustees should work cooperatively in the implementation and enforcement of approved policies. Also, the staff and public should have some means of communicating exceptions, unusual circumstances, and complaints to the director. The director can convey appropriate issues for the board's consideration in amending or revising the policy. Challenges to policies are most common in the areas of material selection and public Internet access (for more information on dealing with challenges to policies, see Administrative Essential #24: Collection Development).

Legally defensible policies

It is important for policies to be legal. Illegal policies can open the municipality to liability. (See Trustee Essential #25: Liability Issues, for more information.) Below are four tests of a legally defensible policy:

Test #1: Policies must comply with current statutes and case law. For example:

  • A library policy charging patrons for use of computers in the library would be contrary to Wisconsin Statutes Section 43.52(2), which requires that public library services be provided free of charge.
  • A policy that says the library's public meeting room cannot be used for religious purposes would be unconstitutional under a Wisconsin federal district court decision.

Test #2: Policies must be reasonable (and all penalties must be reasonable). For example:

  • A library policy that says, "All talking in the library is prohibited, and anyone who talks in the library will permanently lose library use privileges," is clearly an unreasonable rule with an unreasonably harsh penalty.

Test #3: Policies must be clear (not ambiguous or vague). For example:

  • A policy that says, "Library use privileges will be revoked if a patron has too many overdue books," is too vague to be fairly administered.

Test #4: Policies must be applied without discrimination. For example:

  • If a library charges fines, it cannot give preferential treatment to some individual patrons. For example, if the library sometimes waives fines, that waiver must be available to all patrons on an equal basis—not just to friends of library staff or to politically important people.

Many libraries find that it is helpful when developing or revising policies to review the policies of other libraries. While it may be tempting to adopt another library's policy as written, be careful that you and your board consider local circumstances and practices and adapt the policy to your needs after careful consideration and review. Many examples of Wisconsin public library policies and other resources are available from the Wisconsin Public Library Policy Resources Page at

Policy versus procedure

Traditionally, policies are approved by the board and then procedures are established by the director or management so that staff can apply general policies to specific situations. The policies establish and delineate general rules for library operations. Procedures, on the other hand, detail the specific steps that the library executes in implementing those policies. Policies make statements of what is being established and why. Procedures detail the specifics of "how," "when," and "who."

Recently, the Public Library Association has promoted a model where policies, procedures, and guidelines are all included in a policy manual format that incorporates the needs of the board, the staff, and the public.

Policies for Results

In 2003, the American Library Association published Creating Policies for Results: from Chaos to Clarity in its PLA Results series. Written by Sandra Nelson and June Garcia, the book outlines a comprehensive series of steps to inventory library policies and regulations, assess and compile them, and create an effective policy manual.

Under the system, library policies have three or four components:

  1. The Policy Statement explains WHY the library wants to establish a policy. Example: The Hypothetical Public Library will not charge for the use or loan of materials it owns or obtains. However, the Library may assess fines or fees to encourage the return of Library materials and charge for services including, but not limited to, photocopies and meeting room rentals.
  2. The Regulation establishes the specific written rules defining the policy and establishing WHAT must be done. For the example above, the regulation for a loan policy might list the type and quantity of materials that may be borrowed, as well as the length of time for loan, the conditions under which renewals may be made, the circumstances under which fines would be assessed, and distribution of notices and bills.
  3. The Procedure is a step-by-step outline of HOW the library will carry out the policies regulations. Usually written by library staff and approved by department heads or the library director, it is good practice to distribute the procedures to the library board as well so they are aware of the impact of the policy implementation. Make sure the procedure reflects achievable and expected practices. For our example, the procedure might delineate how overdue notices are generated and distributed.
  4. Finally, Guidelines may also be necessary to give examples of best practices in specific circumstances or to delineate when exceptions may be made. Guidelines for the example above might describe the circumstances under which exceptions may be made, or how to deal with difficult situations at the circulation desk.

Policy Audit

The full Policies for Results process may be more complex than is necessary or achievable for a smaller library with limited staff. But the process does include good suggestions for conducting a policy audit when current policies may not be collected together in a uniform form or where procedural inconsistencies may exist in executing the policies. An audit will help to determine what variant policies are in use, where they are kept, and what procedures are being used to carry them out. Then the most recent versions can be compiled into a single volume with a table of contents. As you and your board review, update, or add policies, they can be put into a standard format for consistency and ease-of-use. Be sure to indicate on each policy when it was first adopted, when it was last reviewed, and when the most recent revisions were made.

Policy and procedure manuals

A combined policy and procedure manual provides an organized, single reference point for library policies and the procedures you staff needs to carry them out. But including all policies, procedures, and related guidelines may result in a volume of unwieldy proportions. Circulation staff may find it unnecessary to know about procedures for technical services. More and more, libraries are compiling their policies and related procedures online where they can be easily updated and readily located and searched. By posting policies on the Web, increased public access and awareness is achieved, assuming the policies can be easily located.

Keep in mind that the policy manual is the framework to support all your library operations. It is both an outline for services as well as a legal defense when those services are called into question. As legal documents, they are ultimately the board's responsibility, but it is the director's duty to ensure that staff and the public are aware of policies and that they are enforces uniformly and consistently.

Sources of additional information

The Wisconsin Public Library Policy Resources Page at includes examples of policies and links to other resources.

Nelson, Sandra S., Creating Policies for Results: From Chaos to Clarity, Chicago, American Library Association, 2003.

An exhaustively thorough manual for auditing, developing, and implementing library policies. Appendixes include comprehensive policy development templates including questions to consider on policy and regulations. May be more appropriate for mid-to-large public library.

Turner, Anne M., It Comes with the Territory: Handling Problem Situations in Libraries, revised edition. McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, 2004.

Focuses on "behavior policies" and methods to contend with difficult patrons and situations. Also includes sample policies and procedures.