When Small Is All: The Successful Small Public Library Director Wears Many Hats Smartly

Article excerpt

In 2007, the 9,214 public libraries in the United States served 97% of the total population, a figure that has remained steady for more than a decade.

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But while large public libraries may serve the majority of Americans--nearly 75%--small public libraries offer the most outlets. The majority of public libraries (88%) are located in small cities and villages with a service population of less than 50,000, and more than half have a population service area of fewer than 10,000 people.

These libraries' directors wear many hats: liaison to the board of trustees, policy maker, staff supervisor, budget director, collections and program manager. When those hats sit smartly on the chosen head, library operations run more smoothly.

Who runs the library?

Although there is no single standard of public library governance, the majority of public libraries in the United States, and small ones in particular, are organized as part of a municipal government. In almost all cases, though, the library is governed by an independent board of trustees, usually appointed but sometimes elected (as in the case of public library districts), with clearly defined statutory responsibilities. Library boards are typically made up of citizen representatives who share three important traits: genuine interest in the library as an essential service, familiarity with the community, and general knowledge of library policies and procedures. Specific responsibilities may vary from state to state, but a board of trustees is generally given responsibility in three areas of the library's operations:

* Appointing a librarian and supervising the administration of the library.

* Adopting an annual budget and providing financial oversight.

* Determining and adopting written policies to govern the operation and programs of the library.

In a small community, recruiting a good mix of trustees can be a challenge. Most library board members are appointed by a mayor, a city manager, a county executive, or similar official. Library directors play a role through recruitment--finding people willing to serve and who make the library's best interests their top priority. Successful recruiting can be accomplished in a number of ways, including direct contact or development of an application form. Mayors and county executives are usually pleased to receive the names of volunteers. If a director doesn't get involved in seeking potential members for the board, he or she can end up with an appointee who lacks interest in the library or is unsuitable.

The partnership between board and director works best when their separate roles and responsibilities are understood and respected. While the board is responsible for the big picture (determining the service program, setting policy, having financial oversight), the director administers the day-to-day operations (preparing reports, managing the collection, supervising staff).

* To build effective working relationships with the board, a small-library director should:

* Provide concise and timely information (agendas, reports, proposals).

* Encourage (don't force) all board members to participate in discussions at meetings.

* Confer with the board president prior to each meeting to review the agenda.

* Meet with new board members, provide them with appropriate background materials, and give them a tour of the facilities before their first meeting.

And, at the risk of oversimplifying, here's a list of don'ts:

* Arrive late or unprepared for a meeting.

* Speak in library jargon loaded with acronyms.

* Spring any surprises, such as asking board members to act on a proposal or recommendation they have not had time to consider beforehand.

* Overwhelm board members with operational details, particularly if they are outside their primary areas of responsibility. …