Trustee Tuesday: Putting the Public Back in Public Library

By show of hands, how many of you have made a joke about the public comment period of your board meetings? In the past month, I’ve personally heard at least two. It’s the easy joke we tell because we all know it is uncomfortable to be either caught unawares by the uncontrollable will of the people who have shown up to speak or to note that no one was interested in showing up at all.

Last week I was reading about the ten year process the residents of Belmont went through to get a library building from cornerstone to opening day. The paper of the day declared that for nearly a decade the men of Belmont ate cold suppers. Our region’s public libraries were begun and developed by dedicated community members, committed to twin ideas of education and democracy. Once established, it is as common for me to hear the library spoke about with quaint nostalgia, as it is with deep passion. And I’m a librarian. I really almost only talk libraries (occasionally sports and art, but really, mostly libraries).

Where did all the passion go? It went the way of civic engagement, which we all seem to have off-shored to politicians and lobbyists, forgetting how to do it ourselves. Now, it’s our job, as one of the last civic institutions still standing in the majority of our communities, to make peace with discord and invite the public in.

The How Behind the Why

You post your upcoming meeting dates. Good! Do you tell your neighbors what difficult decisions you have to make as a trustee and invite them in to help you with it?

You post your minutes. Good! Do you hold public forums on your annual budget? Do you ask at the Lions/Rotary/Elks/VFW/Auxiliary/Kiwanis if they can partner with you to extend your resources beyond what your budgets describe?

Many of you have excellent mission statements, the “Why” of what you do, which include some element of empowerment through education. Take a moment to consider that the “how” behind it – the practices you employ to govern and operate the library, will determine the breadth and depth of your impact in the community you wish to serve.

When you behave transparently in all your library dealings, actively seeking input and participation from the public not only at fundraising time, but also in planning and implementing programs and services, your practices will increase engagement. In order to truly appreciate the nested quality of the library in the larger community which supports it, the library must actively prove that relationship with openness in what it shares, and also what it invites.

Open Meetings Law

I have received many questions about FOIL in the last few months. Before approaching FOIL specifically, which has special considerations depending on charter type, I’d like all libraries to understand that Open Meetings Law applies to you. And that the law might be more strict than you realized. Here are practices mandated by Open Meetings Law:

  • Every official meeting of the board at which a quorum is present is open to the public
  • Executive session can only be entered under very specific circumstances
  • Every document that will be discussed at the board meeting, including the Director’s report, financial reports, and lists of warrants, must be made available to the public at least one week prior to the meeting
  • Every working session of the board is also open to the public

Considerations for Association Libraries

Association libraries are not obligated to satisfy FOIL requests. That said, there is nothing that raises suspicions quicker than a publicly funded entity refusing to share documents related to their governance and operations. Also, note that most so-called FOIL requests are from members of the public asking for information libraries are obligated to provide under Open Meetings Law. If you are an association library trustee, don’t ignore a request for information because FOIL doesn’t apply because everything listed above must be readily available to the public to be compliant with Open Meetings Law.

Culture Not Just Compliance

Having an active and engaged community in the library takes a shift in board culture to invite and respect public opinion in all things. That can really slow down the works, at first! It can also mean that your library isn’t always struggling to find people to run for office or to volunteer their time to serve on the board. Your organization can only effectively sustain its actions if more members of the community are involved.

For a detailed description of how Open Meetings Law applies to your library, read the Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State.