Blog Series: What can you do as a Library Board to improve the relationship between your municipal council and the public library? (Post #1 of 4)

In a series of guest blogs, Fort Frances Public Library board member Andrew Hallikas and Ontario Library Boards’ Association President Caroline Goulding will be exploring the question: What can you do as a Library Board to improve the relationship between your municipal council and the public library? Posts will be published every two weeks. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Blog (to the right of the screen) for notifications.

In this post we will be focusing on how to build a foundation for a great relationship. It is vitally important for public library boards to build solid, trusting relationships with their municipal council. Creating and maintaining this relationship is one of the most important issues that almost all Ontario Libraries face!

Some may argue that other problems such as finances, drug addiction, safety are more pressing. However, it is the Municipal Council that provides most of the funding for Libraries, appoints Board Members, and provides support. We would argue that the ability of Libraries to deal with all these other issues begins with this.

Andrew first became aware of the divide between some Municipal Councils and their Library Boards when he was elected to his first term of Council and appointed to the local Library Board.  He found that very few of his fellow councillors visited the library or were aware of the extensive community demographic that used the local Library.  Despite the creative and varied programming and services, that the Fort Frances Public Library offered, very few councillors saw the value it provided the community.

One counsellor proudly informed Andrew that Libraries were an anachronism and had outlived their usefulness.

Another Councillor during a budget meeting where cuts to the Library budget were proposed, asked the question, “What’s so special about the Library?”. In response the library posted the quote prominently and asked patrons to answer it. Patrons responded overwhelmingly with their answers, many of which were written about in local and social media and the Library got excellent positive coverage.

This friction between a Municipal Council and their public library is not unique to Fort Frances. In many communities there exists a divide between Municipal Councillors and the Library.

We are here to tell you that that does not have to be the case.

These posts are based on our general observations and are meant to help start a discussion.

Know your Municipal Council

In Northern Ontario, municipal councils can have a pretty homogeneous demographic of primarily older, conservative white males. Most councils are fiscally prudent, and they pay particular attention to roads, sewers, and water.  They will describe community services such as museums, libraries, day care, and festivals as “soft services”. If this is a description of your municipal council, you need to work towards making your council more diverse and representative of the community. We need to educate and change the mind set of councillors who think that Libraries are less worthy of attention and funding because they are “soft services”. Councillors need to believe that libraries are essential community services.

Regardless of the composition of your Municipal Council, all Councils have the same financial restraints that Libraries have, and they will appreciate fiscal prudence. They will also appreciate anything that casts their community in a positive light or provides favourable publicity.

As Library supporters you see the value that your local Library offers its community, but what does your local Council value? What do individual Councillors value? It is very easy to think of Councillors as being hard hearted and unfeeling when they do not support the same causes that you do.

It is important to remember that your local Councillors will have projects that they are passionate about. Is there a way that your Library could support these goals? The Library mandate is wonderfully broad and if you can demonstrate to even just one Councillor that the Library can play a role outside the bookshelves, that the Library is a value added service not a  “soft service”, you can start to change how Council as a whole sees the Library over time.

It is important for the local Library Board to know and build relationships and trust with individual Councillors. It is easy to rely on formal presentations to try and maintain a relationship, but you cannot develop a strong relationship inside the Council Chambers. While making formal presentations is important to accountability, the informal connection Board members develop with Councillors are important for relationship building.

Board members should meet with Councillors, sometimes over coffee and talk not about the Library’s budget ask, or building projects, but about the community and what the Library is doing and can to do help.

As Board members you cannot simply tell your CEO in a meeting that “We need to have a better relationship with our Municipality.” It is not something that can be delegated.  Library staff can develop and improve relationships with Municipal Staff, but the relationship with Council needs to be developed by the Board, out in the community you both serve.

Get Your Municipal Councillors into the Library

You need to get Municipal Councillors into your Library to see firsthand all the innovative and creative things that go on there, for people of all ages. One of the first things that a newly appointed Library Board should do is to hold an open house for the newly elected Mayor and Council. This is an important opportunity for the Library Board and CEO to meet and mingle with the Mayor and Council and to show off the Library, its staff, its programing, and its services. Have a short program focusing on one or two things that you want your municipal council to know. It is important to get council members into the library frequently. Serve refreshments so that Councillors and Library Board members can mingle informally. During the rest of the evening, take the opportunity to speak one on one with individual members of council. Have an elevator speech ready to be presented by experienced Library Board members and the Library CEO. Be organized so that there are several different elevator speeches. This should be the first of many invitations that Mayor and Council receive to visit your Library. Invite them every time you host a significant event at the Library. Ensure that the media is present at all Library events.

Wherever possible inform and educate your municipal council, see above

Most libraries do an outstanding job providing services and programming. Many councillors are not aware of how creative, versatile, and efficient their libraries are in using public tax dollars to benefit the community.  While it is important to get Municipal Politicians into the Library, it is equally important for the Library to go to the politicians and do presentations to council.

The Board Chair and the Library CEO should be appearing regularly before council. Many Library boards will do a presentation at budget time. We would recommend at least quarterly presentations on a variety of topics. Imagine what you would think of a relative who only visited once a year to ask for money. Your Council delegations need to happen regularly and focus on topics beyond just the budget. For example, appearing before council to remind them of all the wonderful things that the Library continued to do during COVID-19 when the Library was physically closed to patrons, but continued to have a large virtual presence. Talk to your Council about the positive impact that the Library has on the community.

Sometimes mistrust can develop between a Municipal Council and the Library. The autonomy provided to a Public Library Board by the Public Library Act can be double edged sword. It allows the Board to act in the Library’s best interest, but it also means that the Library is quite different to many of the other Boards a Councillor may participate in and to municipal departments. The education piece around ensuring a Council understands that the Library is not a municipal department is important, but to build trust the Board needs to be accountable to all its stakeholders including Municipal Council. Make sure your local Council is kept up to date on the Library’s performance and goals. These updates can include:

  • Keep council informed of all the innovative and creative things that you are doing.
  • Do a formal presentation to council when your annual report is prepared.
  • Present your Strategic plan to Council.
  • Report newsworthy achievements and feel good stories. For example, when the Library receives awards, is accredited, etc.

Keep presentations short and focused (no more than ten minutes), always provide a brief and concise written report ahead of time. Let the media know when you will be doing a presentation. The media covers Council meetings and generally welcome matters that are not routine, so Delegations to Council usually get good Media coverage.

If your news is brief and might not need a full presentation, consider having the Board Chair send correspondence to Council on behalf of the Board. The key is to ensure that the lines of communication are open and regularly utilized.

Educate, Educate, Educate

It is essential that all Board Members are familiar with the Public Library Act, it is also essential that Council Members are familiar not only with the broad strokes of the act and but also the operation of their public library. Take every opportunity to educate your new Board and Municipal Council. Board professional development is much easier than educating your council. But informing your council about all things Library on a regular basis will pay dividends.

It is important that your Board and Municipal Council understands the distinction that the Library Board is governed by the Ontario Public Libraries Act. That they can hire and fire their CEO, that the Library CEO is not a Municipal employee, but a Library Board employee and the Library is not simply another department of the Municipality. That while the Municipality sets the amount of funding that the Library will receive from the Municipality. The Library Board sets its own budget and decides how that money will be spent.

One Reply to “Blog Series: What can you do as a Library Board to improve the relationship between your municipal council and the public library? (Post #1 of 4)”

  1. Thank you so very much for this communication. I am a Trustee with the Prince Edward County (PEC) Library System. We have six branches throughout the county. PEC is an island on the north east shore of Lake Ontario. We are a mostly rural setting in which Wineries, Craft Brewers, every type of Artisan you can imagine and some lovely little communities exist and attract huge numbers of tourists throughout the year.
    It is gratifying to know that the PEC Library System is not dissimilar to other library systems in southern Ontario. I very much appreciate the sage advice given. Articulating the relationships between Council members and the library board members really hits a cord – thanks again.

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