Community & Public Relations

The public library board is a major conduit of information between the library and its community. Thus the library board has two separate, but related, functions in relationship to its community.

  • It represents the needs and desires of the community to the library staff
  • and

  • It represents the needs of the library to the community.

These functions are illustrated by the following diagram.

Board and Library Interactions

If the board fails to pass information in either direction, then it is failing to do this part of its job.

Representing the Library

One side of the library board's responsibility in community relations is to represent the library to the community. This means that board members should be thoroughly familiar with the library. In fact, outside of the library staff, no one in the community should know the library better than its board members.

Here are some tips on how to get to know your library:

  • Use your library! There is no better way for a board member to get to know the library than to actually use its services.
  • Ask questions. Even a small library is a complex organization. It is not easy to understand everything that goes on in it. If you don't ask questions, you will never get the real reasons behind how things are done.
  • Read your minutes. If you are a new board member, read the board minutes for the past five years. These will tell you the major issues that have been discussed, as well as give a picture of the budget and other important fiscal information.
  • Attend continuing education activities. Activities for both board members and for library staff can be useful, as they can give you new perspectives and ideas for your library, and they will help you to see the "big picture" of librarianship and how your library fits into it.
  • Visit other libraries. Cooperation between libraries is an important part of library services. Your understanding of how other libraries operate will help you to develop programs for cooperation for your library.

Representing the Community

Because the library board represents the community, its membership should be representative of the community. Ideally, the membership of the board should include both men and women, young and old, rich and poor. If there is a significant minority population in the community, they should be represented. If the library board has input on who will be appointed to it, these factors should be considered.
However, for a number of reasons, the ideal library board representation is rarely achieved. When this occurs, it is up to the board members to seek out the needs and opinions of those who are not represented. How can this be done?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Visit with individual members of the unrepresented group. If there are no men on the board, for example, board members should talk to their husbands, sons, and male friends about library services and reading. Ask them what they like to read and what kind of information they need to carry out their vocational and recreational activities.
  • Visit groups that are made up of the unrepresented. For example, if the board does not have any members who are parents of school age children, board members might want to accompany the library director on a visit with the PTA or other parent group to see how the library might more adequately serve these people.
  • Visit with the professionals who work with the unrepresented group. Typically, library boards have few poor people on them, for example. The needs of the poor can be determined, however, if someone from the county welfare department or the ministerial association is asked to address the board. These are people who deal with the problems of the poor on a day-to-day basis, and who might have some ideas about how the library could serve them.
  • Take a walk around your community for the expressed purpose of looking at the community. Frequently, we are so involved in our own lives and concerns that we fail to see important things right in front of our eyes. A good project for your library board could be to walk around the town as a group to see what is going on. When groups do this, they are often surprised not only by how much they don't know about their community, but also by the different perspectives that other board members bring to the same facts.
  • If the board has the time or money, they may also carry out a more formal study of their community. This involves gathering statistical information, visiting with a wide variety of community agencies and opinion leaders, and writing a formal document that gives community information.
  • Such studies can be very useful, but should not be taken on lightly. They are a lot of work.

See Planning for the Future and Needs Assessment.

The Importance of Objectivity

Gathering community information is not enough, however. It is also important to put this information to use. This requires that board members look beyond their own interests and opinions to consider the interests and opinions of others.

Here are some hints on how this can be done:

  • Listen, listen, and listen some more.
  • Never go into a board discussion with your mind made up. If you have strong feelings about a particular issue, make sure you spend more time listening than talking when the issue is discussed.
  • Review all policies annually and more often if the need arises. Policies are not written in stone, but should change as the needs of the community change.
  • Consider every decision you make from the perspective of those who are not represented on the board. For example, if the library decides not to buy paperbacks, how will this affect young adults, who typically do not like hardback books, and who are excluded from serving on the board by their age?
  • Be willing to change. Look for ways to make the library more appealing for those who are not currently using it, while at the same time remembering the needs of the more traditional users.
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