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Nevada Library Governance and Public Library Trustees

Trustee Roles and Responsibilities

The library board is responsible for the library and all that happens in it. That may be a strong statement, but it is both a legal and practical way of looking at the job you accepted as board member. Even though the board delegates the actual day-to-day operation of the library to professional, paid staff, the board never gives up ultimate bottom-line responsibility for the success or failure of the library. To manage that responsibility, the board has six major duties:

  1. Set policies
  2. Hire and evaluate the director
  3. Plan for the future of the library
  4. Submit budgets and monitor finances
  5. Monitor and evaluate the overall effectiveness of the library
  6. Advocate for the library in the community

See statutory powers and duties of Nevada library trustees in NRS 379.025.

Library Directors

The director is responsible for administering all functions of the library. Just as there is sometimes confusion about the role of the library board member, there may be confusion about the director's role on the board team. The director is first an employee of the board, but the relationship between the board and the director is not the typical employer/employee relationship. The library board members' job is to make sure the library operates well and in the best interest of those the library serves, not to demonstrate expertise in managing a library. The board must hire a qualified director, who possesses the required professional library education and experience, to manage the day-to-day operations.

Board Officers

Board leaders facilitate good group decisions. Any group that expects to accomplish anything must have leaders to keep the group organized, help the group discipline itself, prod the group to move ahead, and facilitate the work of the group to make good decisions. That's the function of all board officers.

Boards grow from different traditions and have different ideas about the type and number of officers they need. The job responsibilities of your board's officers may vary.

Someone has to be the board's leader and that person is the board chairperson. The job description for the chairperson is relatively simple, but the job can be complex.

First of all the board chairperson must be understood to have no power beyond that of any other board member unless the full board has granted that power to the chairperson. For example, the board may delegate specific powers to the board chairperson, such as managing board meetings, crafting the agenda with the Library Director, speaking to the public on behalf of the board, or signing contracts or the director's timesheet on behalf of the board.

Any powers exercised by the board chairperson must first be granted by the full board in policy, or in commonly accepted and understood practice of the board. In other words, the board president does not speak for the board unless the full board has formally or informally delegated that privilege to the chairperson.


An effective trustee promotes the interest of the library at all times. As a trustee, you must have a deep personal commitment to your library and the services it provides. You must have a sense of what you want your library to be in the future, not just what it is today, and you must be willing to work to help move forward to that point. The trustee who has the deep personal commitment to the library is well on the way toward being a good advocate.

As a trustee, you will come to appreciate the concept of libraries as an integral part of our society. Our entire educational process depends, to a great extent, on the quality of information services. Libraries are not only part of our present society; they are a part of our history that has helped move society forward. They are the hope for an informed future. They serve the societal good. When you advocate better public library services, you advocate better quality of life for American citizens today and in the future.

As an advocate for libraries, you must be willing to go out into your community on behalf of the library. All communities served by public libraries consist not only of library users to whom the trustee must respond, but also of citizens who pay taxes to support the library but do not use it. You must recognize the entire community and be prepared to work with groups as well as individuals. This means not just waiting for an invitation, but aggressively pursuing opportunities to speak before various community groups.

You are expected to know enough about your library to be able to respond to queries and to articulate just what the library has to offer. You must have a clear idea of how your library fulfills community expectations and values and be able to "tell the library story" to illustrate this in a meaningful way.

To be an effective advocate you must understand the different roles and responsibilities of librarians and trustees and do everything possible to work together meaningfully to develop and promote a comprehensive library program. For example, at a county commission or city supervisors meeting it is appropriate for you as a trustee to present and support the library's programs and budget, and for the librarian to be there to answer technical questions regarding services. The more you understand your library's roles the better advocate you will be.

A successful advocate can bring new users into the library, bring new revenues into the library, and increase awareness of library services. Legislators have been known to see the public library from a new perspective after speaking to an effective trustee advocate. Remember, the reason you were appointed to the library board is because you have the ability to help improve the library's services. The people to whom you speak may be motivated to write a bequest to the library in a will, ask a corporate officer to consider a donation to the library, or speak to state or federal legislators on behalf of the library.

Your advocacy for the library will take different forms, including establishing a relationship with the mayor, city manager and supervisors and/or the county manager and county commissioners, and state legislators. You will also be expected to communicate the value of library services to the taxpayer. Your advocacy efforts will generally be part of a planned board effort. The board must speak with one voice. You, as an individual board member, can speak about the board's official position on library-related issues. An effective trustee promotes the interest of the library at all times.

Finally, as a trustee advocate, you will be a defender of intellectual freedom, and of an individual's right to information. That includes, but is not limited to, firm support of the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Statement and Library Bill of Rights. (Both documents are included in the Appendix.) One of the questions frequently asked of library trustees (usually in open forum) is whether a particular book or other item should be in the library's collection.

The response must be unequivocal in defense of intellectual freedom. You must explain that the role of the library is to provide materials in response to the needs of all segments of the community and (when available) to provide information on all sides of a given issue. Communicating to the community about library services and programs is of great importance.

Planning for the Future

The purpose of planning for the library's future is to anticipate both opportunities and problems. Planning involves the following basic questions:

  • What is our purpose?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How will we get there?
  • What is the optimum timeframe for achievement?
  • How will we know what we accomplished?
  • What is our purpose?

The library mission should be expressed in a brief statement of the library's purpose that sets the focus for planning. It is based on, but not limited to, a vision of the library's roles in the community. While somewhat general, the statement should summarize the library's major areas of emphasis.

Effective Board Meetings

Regular board meetings and committee meetings are where most of the board's work is done. What you do in meetings can make the difference between an effective and an ineffective board. Poor meetings can alienate staff, damage the board team, waste your time and the time of the other board members, cause turmoil in the community, and actually hamper the operation of the library.

Careful preparation is the key to meetings that produce results. Here are a few guidelines for planning and conducting an effective meeting:

  • Decide what is to be accomplished
  • Define the purpose in clear terms
  • Develop a written agenda
  • Begin on time, and end on time

You can expect the board chairperson to run the meetings and keep the board moving toward good decisions. However, it is no less each board member’s responsibility to:

  • Attend all meetings
  • Prepare well for meetings
  • Take part in all discussions
  • Cooperate with fellow board members to make meetings work
  • Adhere to parliamentary law and to relevant state laws
  • Learn traditional meeting practices of your board and follow them
  • Practice the art of compromise with other members of the team
  • Practice the art of listening and merging your ideas with those of the others
  • Work toward consensus on issues
  • Focus all deliberations on the best interests of library users
  • Publicly support the board decisions

Ethics and Liability

As a board member of a public library, you are a public servant. Beyond the strict legal definition of how board members should conduct themselves, there are board member ethics. The public expects that your performance will always be above question and for the public good, not for your own interest or another special interest. Most professional employees are covered by a code of ethics or standards of practice. The following is a suggested code of ethical conduct [ALTA (Homepage of ALA) (12 May 2003) (online),, date accessed 27 May 2003.] for library trustees:

As a member of the library board I will:

  • Promote the highest level of library service while observing ethical standards
  • Declare any conflict of interests between my personal life and my position on the library board and avoid voting on issues that appear to be a conflict of interest
  • Avoid situations in which personal interests might be served or financial benefits gained at the expense of library users, colleagues or the institution
  • Distinguish clearly in my actions and statements between my personal philosophies and attitudes and those of the institution
  • Respect the confidential nature of library business while being aware of, and in compliance with, the Freedom of Information Act
  • Be prepared to support to the fullest, the efforts of librarians in resisting censorship of library materials by groups or individuals

Trustees who accept appointment to a library board are expected to perform the duties and responsibilities of Trustee. As a member of the library board I will not:

  • Be critical, in or outside of the board meeting, of fellow board members or their opinions
  • Use any part of the library for my personal advantage or the personal advantage of my friends or relatives
  • Discuss the confidential proceedings of the board outside the board meeting
  • Promise prior to a meeting how I will vote on any issue in the meeting
  • Interfere with the duties of the director or undermine the director's authority

Makings Decisions

Your board team will have to make dozens of decisions, all the way from deciding meeting times to deciding to build a new building. Good decisions are made through a logical, common-sense process that includes plenty of pertinent information, expert advice, experience, vision, and exchange of ideas among members of the board team.

Politics, special interests, and personal bias are realities that always come into play when a board attempts to make a team decision, but with a well-understood and followed decision-making process, those elements can be controlled and the board team can make good decisions.

The following steps will lead to effective board decisions:

Define the Issue Clearly

First make sure that all members of the board team are on the same channel. You could deliberate for hours on an issue that deserves only a few minutes if all board members aren't clear about what the issue really is. The best way to avoid that is to get a motion on the table right away, so everyone can focus on that specific motion. The chairperson should make it clear to all what a positive or a negative vote means. If you are not clear about the intent or meaning of the motion, ask the maker of the motion to clarity.

Look at the Information

Good information is the only way a board team can understand enough about the issues to make good decisions. Your experience is a prime source of valuable information. Other board members also will have valuable information and insights.

Board members are not on the front line with the daily business of the library and probably have limited expertise in library management. That means you have to rely on information from a variety of other people. The director and committee reports are standard sources for information about the issues that come before the board. Call on outside experts when necessary. Board members aren't appointed for their expertise and experience in running a library, but rather their ability to ask the right questions, draw upon their experience and leadership skills, and make good, informed decisions for the benefit of the library and community.

Consider the Alternatives

Approach every issue with an open mind, believing that there is more than one side to every issue. What seems obvious at first glance may prove to have serious consequences down the road. Play "devil's advocate," ask tough questions, and encourage other members of the team to voice opinions even though they may not agree with the majority.

Even a strong recommendation from the director or a board committee should not be accepted without a hard look at the possible alternatives. The director and committees should be expected to deliver a list of alternatives they have considered in arriving at their final recommendation.

Seek Assistance

You should expect a recommendation from your director on all issues before the board. Never be afraid to seek help from outside the board from attorneys and other specialists who can help you make the decision. Just remember that no matter who recommends what or who advises you how to vote, the board has the ultimate responsibility and liability for the decisions they make. You can't blame others for your poor decisions.

Keep in mind your mission and goals .All that you do should be in line with the mission of the library. Every decision the board makes should be in line with the five-year master plan of the library and somehow advance the mission. You should also be able to say that every decision is for the greatest good of those who use the library.

Project the Consequences

This is where the board members vision comes in. A board decision cannot be made in isolation from all other things going on in the library. You must consider how this decision will affect people, programs, and plans. How will the community be affected by your decision? Are there possible legal problems with this decision? Will a decision to spend money in one area mean that less money will be available for other areas?

A decision today could well have consequences for years to come. For example, a decision to build a new building would be very shortsighted if it did not take into consideration the cost of upkeep and maintenance for the life of the building.


This is where you put it all together and voice your own individual decision on the issue. Set aside personal bias and emotions, and cast the vote for what you think is the best decision for the library.

Money Matters

Trustees have a responsibility to safeguard public funds. To understand the budgeting process and approve an annual budget for the library, board members must know where the money comes from and how much revenue they can expect to build into the budget each year. A good understanding of revenue sources is important as board members must encourage continued funding from those sources and find new sources when needed.

Each board member should:

  • Know the library's financial base and background
  • Know the governmental unit(s) allocating the local appropriation
  • Know the grants available from the state and federal government
  • Understand the basics of legal regulations and reporting required for library funding
  • Understand the financial needs of library operation and plan for funds needed for growth and expansion
  • Investigate other possible sources of funding: a bond issue, endowments, trusts, memorials, dedicated tax revenue, foundation grants, donations, gifts, and fines
  • Not wait for a budget presentation to make a case for needed funding or to describe programs and services; this is an ongoing responsibility of all trustees