July 1999

The Trustee communicates issues affecting libraries and library services. Once a library and systems join LTA, all their trustees automatically receive this quarterly publication published by LTA. To learn more about membership in LTA, Click Here.

New Standards For Libraries

by Parry Teasdale, NYSALB President

July 1999 issue of Trustee

A state assemblyman recently asked library advocates: Is "the system" broken? What he wanted was a statement of the fundamental problem facing libraries today... other than a chronic shortage of money. But by asking about THE system (he wasn't referring to a specific library system), he assumed there is a consistency to library service statewide. That faulty assumption is worth exploring.


Test scores recently confirmed that even though the state requires a certain standard of education, some schools do a good job of educating kids while others are failing abysmally. Unlike schools, libraries are subject to very few uniform state guidelines. But as with schools, the quality of library service varies radically from one community to the next. So in that sense, something IS broken.


What can we do about it? The Regents have decided the remedy for schools is to hold all students to higher standards. Their approach toward libraries is still being formulated. Last year the Regents appointed a temporary Commission on Library Services to recommend changes leading to improved and more equitable library service for all New Yorkers. Its final report is due next year.


Some of the commission members are library professionals, but several members were surprised to learn that New York State does not mandate library service. These members must also have been amazed at our patchwork quilt of library types: special district, school district, municipal and association, each funded in a slightly different manner. Perhaps the only characteristic shared by all public libraries statewide is that each is governed by trustees.


And that's where any proposal for change must start--with trustees. If, for instance, the recommendations include a proposal for a major redrawing of chartered service areas, trustees must be involved in those decisions. If there is serious effort to establish a statewide requirement for public library service complete with new, higher standards, that effort, too, begins with trustee involvement.


Some trustees undoubtedly will be left in the dust as this process unfolds. The clueless ones will be those who think their responsibilities begin and end with attendance at library board meetings and who don't understand that if new standards are set for library service, that will automatically establish new standards for trusteeship.


One way to help trustees get involved in the process of determining new standards for library service is for the state Division of Library Development to renew its financial and technical support for trustee education, a commitment that lapsed a decade ago. State officials have been generous with their time, but that's not enough anymore. The stakes are too high, the cost of failure too great.


The challenge doesn't lie in fixing a broken "system," it lies in designing a system that will raise the standard of library service for all citizens. The commission must describe practical, coherent steps that support growth and change without undermining the principle of local control.  As the commission deliberates, the demand for library services is increasing, the commercial competition is growing and the chasm between communities with good library service and those where service is poor widens relentlessly. The commission has its work cut out for it. But so do all of us who serve as trustees.

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