New York State Library

Public Library District Toolkit: Strategies to Assure your Library’s Legal and Financial Stability

(2021)

Revised edition of Public Library Districts; an Introduction and “How-To Guide”

Updated and expanded for the New York State Library Division of Library Development by Rebekkah Smith Aldrich and Jerry Nichols

This toolkit is also available as a printable PDF pdf file


“Access to a Library and the world it may open should be a basic right. Working to make this a reality has been my privilege.”

Marianne Taylor, Trustee, Vestal Public Library

“Secure funding made a huge difference in how we serve our community. We could put all the energy that had gone into annually scrambling for funding into improving library services. Being free of funding uncertainty made it possible to think bigger and better and plan long-term without worry.”

Jeanne Buck, Director, Reed Memorial Library

Preface

This guide is the second iteration of the web-based resource Creating Public Library Districts in New York State: a "How-To Guide" first developed by Dick Panz, former director of the Monroe County Library System, at the request of the New York State Library’s Division of Library Development (DLD). Dick, with input from DLD, Public Library System staffs and the New York Library Association Library District Task Force, assiduously wove together information developed over the years by colleagues around the state, and from individual libraries who had gone through the transition. Prior to its publication such information was scattered and incomplete.

Prior to the mid-1990’s interest in changing the legal structure of a public library was limited to exceptional situations. Creating new libraries that did not conform to school district boundaries was challenging, at best. But the remarkable growth of, and demand for, library services, the need for new technologies and newer, larger facilities inspired many association and municipal libraries to seek avenues for direct public tax support and direct public representation. In 1999 a tipping point was reached with the revision of Commissioner’s Regulation 90.3 to forbid the sale of library cards to residents of the library’s regional system and an allowance for regional systems to better address the inequities of requiring “free” access to those non-residents who did not contribute to the support of their own public library. This was a turning point for New York State, acknowledging that equitable access to library service was a priority for all New Yorkers, not just those who could pay out-of-pocket. When the New York State Board of Regents endorsed the “Public Library District Model” in 2000 the stage was set to encourage all public libraries in our state to be independent and truly “public”. Since then nearly 60 New York State libraries have been created or re-established as public library districts. Thousands of previously unserved residents now have their own library. Residents across regions are now contributing equitably towards local library service rather than bearing the burden for segments that had previously not contributed. And many more association libraries have obtained a direct public vote on their budget and on their trustees, and so have assured stable funding and representative governance for the years ahead.

The purpose of the Guide is to convey not only the technical aspects of stabilizing library funding and governance structures but, perhaps more importantly, the “lessons learned” over the past two decades by those trustees and library administrators who understand that they are responsible for the future of their institution, long after they are gone. The times we now live in demand such vision once again and it is our hope that this toolkit provides guidance and empowerment to help the library leaders of today ensure access to local library services for the communities of tomorrow.

Table of Contents

  1. Preface
  2. Introduction: Ensuring your Library’s Future
  3. Good, Better, Best: An Introduction to Library Governance & Funding in New York State
  4. Getting on the Ballot
  5. Public Library Districts
  6. Getting Started
  7. Establishing the District
  8. Conclusion
  9. Appendices

Introduction: Ensuring your Library’s Future

"It is the library board who is accountable to the local community for obtaining sufficient funding to provide appropriate public library services; both for the present and well into the future. Public libraries demonstrate a community’s commitment to a better tomorrow, and it is the trustees’ responsibility to assure that their library will be a strong and viable institution for their children and grandchildren. A public library is a public service and secure, reliable public funding is the most appropriate way to pay for it. A public library is not a charity!"

-Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State, 2018.

Every public library trustee has the responsibility to not only oversee the provision of quality library service to their community today, but to provide for viable and vibrant services in the decades ahead. The recent challenges faced by our world, our country and our communities must be recognized as a wake-up call for all institutions to re-examine how they do business to ensure their sustainability.

Public libraries are more than their buildings, collections, staff and trustees- they are institutions that embody the ideal that everyone is entitled to free, unencumbered access to information, education and culture; in whatever format or manner that best serves them. They embody the belief that well informed citizens are the foundation of a democratic society and that it is a library board’s mission to strengthen that foundation. They provide the platform to strengthen community resilience, bridging divides to increase empathy, understanding and respect for one another.

But despite the best intentions of dedicated trustees, their library will wither and die without sufficient resources. It is your primary task as a trustee to assure that your Library can offer a relevant, responsive and investment-worthy public library service program well into the 21st century.

This may well involve significant compromise and change. It may require you to transform the legal structure under which your library has operated for over a century, and to hold your library to higher legal standards. In some cases it may require giving up some independence and joining with your neighbors to serve several communities; and to serve them well. And sometimes it will require you, as a trustee, to step aside for the long term good of the institution.

Every public library in New York State is required under the Minimum Standards of Service for Public Libraries adopted by the Board of Regents to develop a community-based long range plan and re-evaluate it on a regular basis. Among other objectives, such plans must provide strategies for the library to have a sustainable and resilient governance and a financial foundation for today and for the future.

The purpose of this guide is to assist libraries in the exploration of their options to stabilize their library’s future using strategies that have a proven track record to provide such a foundation for many of the public libraries in our state. This guide explains the various options available and provides information on the steps necessary.

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Last Updated: February 7, 2022