A Library Primer (1899)/Chapter V

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A Library Primer by John Cotton Dana
Chapter V, Trustees
[Condensed from paper by C. C. Soule]


1) Size of the board.—The library board should be small, in small towns not over three members. In cities a larger board has two advantages: it can include men exceptionally learned in library science, and it can represent more thoroughly different sections of the town and different elements in the population.

2) Term of office.—The board should be divided into several groups, one group going out of office each year. It would be wise if no library trustee could hold office for more than three successive terms of three years each. A library can, under this plan, keep in close touch with popular needs and new ideas.

3) Qualifications.—The ideal qualifications for a trustee of a public library—a fair education and love of books being taken for granted—are: sound character, good judgment, common sense, public spirit, capacity for work, literary taste, representative fitness. Don't assume that because a man has been prominent in political business or social circles he will make a good trustee. Capacity and willingness to work are more useful than a taste for literature without practical qualities. General culture and wide reading are generally more serviceable to the public library than the knowledge of the specialist or scholar. See that different sections of the town's interests are represented. Let neither politics nor religion enter into the choice of trustees.

4) Duties.—The trustee of the public library is elected to preserve and extend the benefits of the library as the people's university. He can learn library science only by intelligent observation and study. He should not hold his position unless he takes a lively interest in the library, attends trustees' meetings, reads the library journals, visits other libraries than his own, and keeps close watch of the tastes and requirements of his constituency. His duties include the care of funds, supervision of expenditures, determination of the library's policy, general direction of choice and purchase of books, selection of librarian and assistants, close watch of work done, and comparison of the same with results reached in other libraries.

A large board ordinarily transacts business through its chairman, secretary, treasurer, and one or more committees. It is doubtful if the librarian should act as secretary of the board. The treasurer, if he holds the funds in his hands, should always be put under bonds. It is well to have as many committees as can be actively employed in order to enlist the coöperation of all the trustees.

The executive committee should take charge of the daily work of the library, of purchases, and of the care of the building; they should carry their duties as far as possible without assuming too much of the responsibility which properly belongs to the full board. It will be best to entrust the choice of books to a book committee appointed for that purpose purely. The finance committee should make and watch investments and see that purchases are made on most favorable terms.

5) Relations with the librarian.—The trustees are the responsible managers of the library; the librarian is their agent, appointed to carry out their wishes. If they have, however, a first-class librarian, the trustees ought to leave the management of the library practically to him, simply supplementing his ability without impeding it. They should leave to a librarian of good executive ability the selection, management, and dismissal of all assistants, the methods and details of library work, and the initiative in the choice of books. A wise librarian the trustees may very properly take into their confidence, and invite his presence at all meetings, where his advice would be of service.

6) Other employés.—Efficiency of employés can best be obtained through application of the cardinal principles of an enlightened civil service, viz., absolute exclusion of all political and personal influence, appointment for definitely ascertained fitness, promotion for merit, and retention during good behavior.