Who Are These People?

By Lynch, Mary Jo | American Libraries, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Who Are These People?


Lynch, Mary Jo, American Libraries


It is a well-known fact that most of the nation's 8,921 public libraries have boards of trustees and that those trustees have a lot to say about how public libraries operate. Trustees are important enough to public library development that most state library agencies maintain lists of the trustees in their states. And they are important enough to ALA that the association has a separate division for them, the American Library Trustee Association (ALTA). But what do we know about the demographic characteristics of trustees? If they represent the public interest -- a prime function of trustees of public agencies -- how close do they come to representing the characteristics of the public?

These were among the questions that prompted ALTA and the ALA executive director to jointly fund a national survey of public library trustees in the summer of 1997. ALTA members and staff worked with the ALA Office for Research and Statistics to draft a questionnaire, 35 state library agencies provided computerized files of trustee names and addresses, and the University of Illinois Library Research Center selected a random sample of 1,200 trustees stratified by the size of population served by the trustees' libraries.

The response rate was over 63%, and the returns represented adequately the distribution of public libraries by region of the United States and by ranges of population served. Therefore, the results can be said to provide a reasonably accurate picture of trustees nationwide. ALTA and ALA will use the results in planning services and products for trustees. However, they are also of interest to the broader library community.

Earlier studies

The first national research on the demographics of public library trustees was done in 1935 and published as part of Carlton Joeckel's The Government of the American Public Library (University of Chicago Press, 1935). Summarizing Joeckel in The Public Library Trustee (Scarecrow, 1973), Ann Prentice noted that "the 1935 trustee was most apt to be a man, over 50 years of age, well educated, and a member of a profession such as law." In her review of subsequent studies, Prentice found that they tended to support Joeckel's findings. Prentice's own study came to the same conclusion about the 1970 trustee. There has been little done on this topic since.

Context

Before asking about demographics, the ALTA survey asked several questions about how boards operate.

* Are members of your local library board elected or appointed?

* Does your board have legal responsibility for the library or are its powers advisory only?

* What is the official length of your current term as a local library board member? …

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