You are here

AE 3: Who Runs the Library?

This Administrative Essential covers:

  • Responsibilities of the library director
  • Responsibilities of the library board
  • The division of labor between the library director and the board
  • Responsibilities of the municipal government
  • Sources of additional information

The public library provides a large number of services to meet the needs of a diverse population. This requires the cooperative efforts of the library's trustees, the library director and staff, and representatives of the municipal government as well as others in the community. When all members of the team know their responsibility and carry out their particular tasks, the library can accomplish its mission effectively. When one of the players attempts to take on the job of another, friction may cause a breakdown.

Responsibilities of the director

While the library board is charged with the full responsibility for deciding what services the library will provide, and setting policy to regulate service for the benefit of all, it is you, the library director, who should be delegated responsibility for supervising day-to-day operations of the library.

The library board appoints a librarian who shall appoint other employees. This charge of the legislature sets up a clear chain of command between the library board and library employees. You are the chief operating officer of the library, reporting to and typically serving at the pleasure of the library board. All other employees report to you. You are the person who is in charge of the library. Your duties include (but are not limited to):

  1. Oversight of the library budget and preparing reports as required by the board.
  2. Managing of library collections, including selecting all library material according to policies approved by the board, oversight of the cataloging and classification of library material, and the operation of automated systems.
  3. Hiring, training, supervising, and scheduling other library personnel.
  4. Supervising circulation of material and record keeping.
  5. Cooperating with the board, community officials, and groups in planning library services and publicizing library programs within the community.
  6. Supervising the maintenance of all library facilities and equipment.

Depending on the size of the library, you will provide public services either directly or with the assistance of other staff. In all cases, you are an ambassador to the community, the technical consultant to the board, a politician representing the library to municipal officers, and a person skilled in public relations. The days are long gone, even in the smallest library, where all that the director is expected to do is to check out books and greet the public.

Responsibilities of the library board

The separate roles and responsibilities of each member of the team are spelled out in Wisconsin Statutes under Section 43.58, which is titled "Powers and Duties." The primary responsibilities of trustees assigned here include

  • Exclusive control of all library expenditures.
  • Purchasing of a library site and the erection of the library building when authorized.
  • Exclusive control of all lands, buildings, money, and property acquired or leased by the municipality for library purposes.
  • Supervising the administration of the library and appointing a librarian.
  • Prescribing the duties and compensation of all library employees.

This charge from the legislature provides library boards, but not individual trustees, with considerable discretion to operate libraries as they deem necessary independent of direct control by other municipal players—city councils, town boards, mayors, village board presidents, etc. In providing this governance structure for libraries, the legislature was attempting to keep library operations under direct citizen control and as far as possible outside the political sphere of government. Compared with other appointed boards, library boards have extraordinary powers and responsibilities. Many other appointed boards can only recommend actions to an elected board or council higher up the ladder of government. Library board actions are made independently of any further approval by other government bodies or officials as long as such actions are within statutory authority.

The independent authority granted to public library boards is intended to protect the historic role of the public library as a source of unbiased information.

The division of labor between the library board and the director

The library board decides what services the library will provide and to what lengths you and the library's staff may go to provide those services. However, it is up to you, to create the procedures needed to carry out the policies of the board and ensure that services are provided effectively and efficiently. While the board alone can decide how many employees the library should have, according to Section 43.58(4) it is you, the library director, who hires and supervises other staff. Except in extreme situations, library trustees should not be discussing library business with employees other than you. The library board may solicit library staff input on your performance as part of a formal evaluation process.

Administration of the budget and expenditure of funds is a frequent source of misunderstanding regarding the division of labor between boards and directors. Section 43.58(2) states that "The library board shall audit and approve all vouchers for the expenditures of the public library." This statement is sometimes interpreted by individual boards to mean they must negotiate the necessity of every purchase with the library director, whether the purchase is an expensive computer system or a two-dollar box of pencils. Fortunately, in most libraries, the director is given reasonable latitude to administer the budget and expend funds according to board guidelines. The library board must review expenditures and keep an eye on the flow of funds, but should trust the judgment of the director when it comes to which books to purchase or which is the most economical office supply vendor.

Responsibilities of municipal governments

The most frequent source of misunderstanding between library boards and their municipal government regards expenditure of funds. This is actually one area where the statutes are quite clear on what is to happen. After you or a staff member make a purchase of a material or service, an invoice will be received from the vendor. You will then prepare a group of invoices for review at the monthly meeting of the library board. Usually, you will also provide a list of the invoices along with a financial statement indicating how much money will be left in each line of the budget after payment is made. According to Wisconsin Statutes Section 43.58(2), "The library board shall audit and approve all vouchers" and forward these to the appropriate municipal or county financial officer. The municipal or county officer must then pay the bill. No further approval is necessary by any municipal or county body or official.

At times, municipal and county boards believe that this procedure outlined in statute causes them to lose control over library spending. They are, after all, accustomed to approving the expenditures of other city/county departments. In fact, municipal governments maintain a great deal of leverage over library boards, since it is the municipal body that decides on the amount of the annual appropriation for library service. It is the chief municipal officer—mayor, village president, county board chair, etc.—who appoints the library board in the first place. Budgets may be cut in future years or trustees may not be re-appointed in cases where there is too much dissension between the library and its governing municipality. Therefore, close cooperation and communication between the two is essential.

One final point on finances: while the library board has full authority over the expenditure of funds, it is the municipality that holds the money. The library board may take out a bank account and/or entrust library funds to a financial secretary, but only for donations and other private funds. All other funds must be deposited in the municipality's (or county's) library fund. The library board has control over the use of the money in the municipality-held library fund, but it does not sign the checks or maintain physical control over the actual dollars and cents in the fund.

Besides acting as the "banker" for the library, municipalities can help out the library in an infinite variety of other ways. They may help with purchasing, or with private fund raising for a building addition; they may provide invaluable consulting on building maintenance issues; in many smaller communities they may even take over building maintenance for the library. By the same token, the most successful libraries are often partners in promoting municipal service agendas. For example, although you work for the library board and not the municipal or county executive, it will be beneficial to attend department-head meetings with other administrators. It is also a good idea for you to attend at least some meetings of the municipal or county governing board and to give a periodic report on library activities. The library may provide services on behalf of the municipality, such as maintaining the village web page. Just as the municipality is a partner in providing library service, the library can be a strong partner in providing municipal service to the community.

Another area where misunderstandings can occur between library boards and their municipal or county governing bodies is the area of personnel. This stems from the fact that library boards have the legal authority to prescribe the duties and compensation of all library employees. A library board may choose to make library employee compensation and personnel policies consistent with those of the municipality or county, but they are not required to do so. In some instances there are important reasons why the library's policies should differ from those of the municipality or county.

Sources of additional information

Trustee Essential 2: Who Runs the Library? in Trustee Essentials: A Handbook for Wisconsin Public Library Trustees:

Your library system staff:

The staff of the Division for Libraries and Technology:

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.