Library trustees as community connectors

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Authors: Keith Simmons and Kent Oliver
Date: Winter 2012
From: National Civic Review(Vol. 101, Issue 4)
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,582 words

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Great cities and, by extension, great communities become so because they have great leadership. We can all think of cities with the natural amenities that should make that place a great city--climate, population, rivers, rail, interstate highways--but never quite achieve that status. Conversely, other cities that have those same amenities, often in less abundance, thrive. In successful cities, citizens take their passion for community along with individual action to a higher level. The difference stems from leadership and the way the community is engaged to bring about an environmental and civic pride that we might all agree constitutes a place where people want to live, achieve, and succeed.

How that leadership is constituted varies from place to place. One model depends almost entirely on government, which can be an uneven and unpredictable way to find great leaders, given the vagaries of the ballot box. At the other end of the scale is the community driven by a handful of well-positioned, affluent power brokers who create a flourishing civic enterprise. At one time, our hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, was driven by just such a group who remained out of sight but very much in control. Many cities, particularly in the South, evolved with that model. One problem with this benevolent dictator model is that it tends to be totally disconnected from the ballot box; another is that a dictator is not always benevolent.

Creating a Citizen-Driven Community

The enlightened model of today is the citizen-driven community--a place where government, business, nonprofits, community groups, the educational community, and other engaged citizens work together for the betterment of all. Nashville itself is part of a fifty-year-old countywide metropolitan form of government that includes a mayor and forty-member Metro Council. The library, a department of government, has enjoyed broad-based support over the last decade and benefited from engaged library trustees, community members, and government leaders, including visionary mayors who helped create a vibrant and successful downtown library. Formally and informally recognized leadership collaborated to significantly influence the educational, literary, cultural, and economic future of their city. This enthusiastic support has spilled over into collaborations with local bookstores and businesses, creating expansive community programs and services.

This model of civic engagement--the choice to be involved in community life and community action--affords the institution of the public library and public library trustees the opportunity to help shape their community's future. Most library directors of today are competent and expert at running a public library system. The trustees' role is to find that expert, support his or her efforts, assist in goal setting, establish policies, and get out of the way so that the professionals can do their work. The trustees can then begin the job of engaging stakeholders and telling the library's story.

The trustee who hovers is not the trustee who maximizes his or her value to the library. Effective public library trustees have a responsibility to be involved in the civic conversation in a unique and beneficial way. In a role identified by the Urban Libraries Council, they are indeed the connector. The well-positioned, well-intended trustee has far more ability to insert the library into the public conversation and influence that conversation than the library director could ever have. The chief library administrator is an obvious and expected advocate for his or her organization. Advocacy 101 teaches us that impassioned volunteer leaders without a personal agenda other than to benefit their community are most capable of influencing change.

Library Trustees as Community Eyes and Ears

How can trustees fulfill this unique role and take advantage of opportunities? The library can serve only if it understands the needs of its community, and the engaged trustee must be the eyes and ears of the library in the community. The trustee who has maximum commerce with the community is the trustee that can best inform the library's role and the performance of that role. That is why it is essential that the library board represent as many of the diverse interests of the community as possible.

The library and the community should expect that their trustees are linked to the decision makers and understand in which channels of communication decision makers work. These decision makers may reside within government or outside of it. Civic engagement may mean that a trustee or trustees move to the front of the decision queue and facilitate civic deliberations. They are in a wonderful position to do this because they bring the diverse views of the community to the table better than most leaders, and they discover the common priorities that engage everyone in the community.

Effective civic engagement to solve local challenges must involve not only shared vision but also shared action. Many times, whether due to the demands of family or job, civic engagement stops with the conversation. Civic engagement means sustained engagement, but this is often the missing link. The opportunities available and problems that confront our complex communities of today will not be addressed with a lick and a promise. They will be addressed only through the extended committed efforts of thoughtful people who care. It is almost axiomatic that many seeking community leadership roles will eventually drop away, sometimes sooner rather than later. Those who really make the difference are the ones who stay with it.

Keeping Civic Engagement on Track

Occasionally cities have all the ingredients in place for greatness, including civic engagement, but the efforts of well-meaning people go nowhere. How does civic engagement get off track? Trustees lose their influence through ineffectual delivery in areas of influence already discussed. All efforts must coordinate with related areas of community interests and bring those interests together. Turf wars, pride of authorship, good ideas working with cross-purposes, failure of effective communication, and discussion void of action diminishes effective civic engagement. Trustees who forget they are leaders and not merely communicators also impede effective engagement.

The demands of the day can force civic engagement off track. As a society, we struggle with what it means to be a citizen. All of us are distracted by increasing demands of work; the primacy of the joys, responsibilities, and problems of family life; the distractions of entertainment; and the burgeoning anxieties of personal security in an increasingly insecure world. This is certainly true for the community leader who is capable of eliciting change. Public library trustees should not apologize for their ideas or their participation in the process. They must be firm in the belief that public libraries are not just a nice service but an essential community service.

Civic engagement means reminding others that we are citizens with responsibilities to make our communities better. The library trustee who legitimately wants to be engaged probably will find that those efforts are thwarted if he or she is not careful to concentrate efforts in such a way as to really make a difference rather than spreading those efforts over too many initiatives. The effective board deploys itself so that all the trustees bring their talents to bear in focused and effective ways on a variety of initiatives that in aggregate make a difference.

Maximizing the Library's Assets to Strengthen Community

Our society seems to be all about branding these days and what a particular word or image conjures up in the mind of the consumer or observer. The "library" as a brand occupies an interesting position in the community. Benjamin Franklin and our founding fathers considered it one of the most important institutions, if not the most important, in our democracy. The library is certainly one of the most trusted institutions in the community. It is the safe place. It is the place that is open to all. It is the place where young people go to dream. How many people do we all know that have heartwarming stories about their experience as a young person at the library or their experience with an influential librarian? The library and the library trustees need to use that position of trust and the image conjured up by the word and image "library" to make the community better.

However, the name and image "library" is not descriptive of civic engagement. It has a passive connotation rather than the active one that we advocate. The modern public library cannot sit on the sidelines. It has too much potential for action and positive problem solving. Trustees and the library must be engaged. Maybe the image conjured up by the library should be center for community involvement rather than the place you get books. This need to engage raises the question of how far we can stray from our traditional mission. Though there may be risk associated with losing the positives of our old brand as we seek a new one, the library as simply a book repository is an archaic idea. We also know that the library as the safe place and the place with the purest agenda is the institution that can be most influential.

As trustees and library constituencies, we must use that positioning for the good of all.

Keith Simmons is chair of the Library Board of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville, Tennessee, a member of the board of directors of the Nashville Public Library Foundation, and past chair of the Urban Libraries Council Board of Directors.

Kent Oliver is the director of the Nashville Public Library. Previously he was the executive director of the Stark County District Library in Canton, Ohio, which was the 2009 winner of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A318106159