January 2000

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President's Memo: Standards For Trustees

by Parry Teasdale, NYSALB President

January 2000 issue of Trustee

The library community in New York State hasn't been very successful lately in squeezing money from Albany for new statewide projects. True, New York puts more money into library service than any other state in the nation: $88.5 million last year. But for all that cash, New York lags behind a number of other states when it comes to innovative, statewide library programs and services. And trustees share some of the responsibility for this gap.

Much of the money allocated by the Governor and the State Legislature each year pays for library system operations. Public libraries reap the benefits of this funding through the services systems provide -- interlibrary loan, technology, staff development, etc. The money doesn't go far enough in part because, with around 720 public libraries and half again as many branches, New York has far more libraries than any other state. Meanwhile, our political leaders don't seem to believe that libraries need more than simply enough to maintain our present level of service.

There are over 5,600 public and association library trustees in New York. Collectively, we could be an extraordinary force on behalf of state library funding. But we don't speak as a collective voice on statewide issues, though it's a good bet each of our libraries would benefit from additional state money.

Why aren't trustees more visible at the state level, even when it's in the best interests of libraries? I think it's because we're focused inward on our individual libraries. What's more, most trustees probably don't know what state funding does for their libraries because they never see that money reflected in their annual budgets.

We trustees use the limited time we have to attend to the immediate needs of our own libraries. This often produces marvelous results for our communities. But it can also feed a sense of insularity that traps us in our own little world. By limiting our outlook, we risk ignoring the reality that the delivery of library services is moving ever more rapidly toward a complete dependence on interconnections among libraries, and between libraries and global sources of information.

To strike a balance between meeting the unique needs of our own libraries and developing an awareness of our role in a larger library community, we must begin to raise our own standards for what it means to be good trustees. I suggest that all new trustees -- whether elected or appointed -- be required to take a minimum of three hours of training in the duties and responsibilities of public library trusteeship within two years of taking office. The same requirement would apply to the rest of us at the time of our reelection or reappointment. We trustees would guide the state in establishing the outline of the standards, and our systems would provide the training sessions.

Voluntarily agreeing to standards may seem an onerous prospect. But do any of us really know everything there is to know about being a library trustee? And if you answer yes, then ask yourself this question: if 5,600 trustees know so much, how come we don't have the clout to get the money to make the public libraries of New York the leaders in library service nationwide?

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