Library Policy ABCs: Everything You Need to Know about Developing Library Policies

The Handbook for Library Trustees in New York State, 2010 edition states: “Policymaking is perhaps the most difficult part of a trustee’s job, requiring an open mind, a thoughtful study of the issues involved and a deep understanding of the library’s mission and of the community it serves.” Library policies should define the library’s values, reflect and support the library’s service priorities, and ensure equitable access to library services.

The NYLTO site will focus helping you and your colleagues to develop or review and revise five policies:

In addition to providing detailed information to on these five policies, you will find policy templates to help you develop or review and revise over 30 other policies in the “Additional Library Policy Template” topic.

There are three sections in this topic. You can scroll down to see each section or you can click on the links below to go directly to a specific section.

Section 1

Policy Development: An Introduction to the Basics
One of the main purposes of NYLTO is to provide library trustees with the tools and skills they need to work with the directors of their libraries to develop effective policies. The key word in the preceding sentence is “effective.” While every library has policies, formal and informal discussions with library trustees and staff suggest that there are number of problems with many of those policies:

  • Policies are not an accurate reflection of current practice.
  • Policies are not an accurate reflection of the library’s priorities.
  • Policies are not updated regularly.
  • Policies do not address all of issues that need to be addressed.
  • Policies are poorly written and hard to understand.
  • Policy statements, regulations, and procedures contradict one another.

The policy information in NYLTO is based on the book Creating Policies for Results: From Chaos to Clarity by Sandra Nelson and June Garcia (American Library Association, 2003.)  In order to use the information effectively, you will need to review and understand some basic policy terms and concepts.

Four Functions of Library Policies

  • Policies provide a mechanism for library managers and staff to translate the library’s service priorities into actions.
  • Policies serve as the primary tool for ensuring that all staff have the information they need to do their jobs effectively
  • Policies provide a way to ensure that all members of the public know what they can expect from the library and that they are treated equitably.
  • Policies provide support for the library staff and members of the library’s governing body in the event of legal action.

Legal Implications of Policies:
Library policies provide a legal framework for the delivery of services to the public. Public library policies are enforceable only if the policies are in writing and have been adopted formally by the library’s governing authority in an open meeting. In addition, these policies will be valid only if they meet the following four tests, which were developed by the Library of Michigan.

Four Tests for a Legally-Enforceable Library Policy:This handout provides a more detailed description of the following four tests with examples.

  • Legality: Does the policy conform to current state and federal laws?
  • Reasonableness: Is the policy reasonable?
  • Non-Discriminatory Application: Can the policy be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner?
  • Measurability: Can the enforcement of the policy be measured?

Section 2

Words Matter: Definitions of Policy Terms

There are a variety of terms that are used when discussing policies including policy, policy statement, practice, regulation, guideline, and procedure. These terms are open to almost as many interpretations as the terms goal and objective. There is no way you can have any meaningful discussions about the library’s policies unless everyone is using the same definitions of the terms relating to policies. The following definitions are use in Creating Policies for Results and throughout the NYLTO site.

Policy Definitions:  This handout includes the following defintions and examples of each.

  • Policy: A generic term used for the policy statement, regulations, and procedures that apply to a specific issue.
  • Policy Statement: A brief, written statement that describes why the library does something. Policy statements must be approved by the board.
  • Regulation: A specific, written rule that further defines the policy statement, describing what must be done to support the policy. Regulations are normally approved by the board.
  • Procedure: A written, step-by-step description of how the staff will carry out a policy statement and regulation. Procedures are written by staff and approved by library managers. They are not reviewed or approved by the board.
  • Guideline: A description of best practices that provides suggestions for staff on the most efficient ways to implement policy statements, regulations, and procedures. Guidelines are always approved by the library director but rarely reviewed by the library board.
  • Practice: The way things are actually done in your library. Practice may or may not be supported by policy statements, regulations, and procedures.  

Section 3

Structure Your Discussions: Policy Development Templates The centerpiece of each of the NYLTO policy topics is a Policy Development Template. These templates have been developed by June Garcia, a nationally recognized authority on public library policies and co-author of Creating for Policies for Results: From Chaos to Clarity, (American Library Association, 2003). Policy Development Templates are designed to help trustees to identify the issues that a specific policy should address. The templates are non-judgmental. They do not provide suggested responses to the issues that are identified. Instead they promote open-ended discussion of the subject of the policy and encourage staff and board members to look at all aspects of the subject. If you wish, you may download this one-page description of the Policy Development Templates to share with your fellow trustees.  You will also want to download the Evaluation Criteria for policy statements and regulations. You can use these criteria to evaluate your current policies and the drafts of the policies you revise.

How to Use the Policy Development Template

Many boards have found that the most effective way to review and revise policies is to appoint a sub-committee of two or three members to discuss the issues raised in the template. When the members of the sub-committee agree on what will be included in the revised policy, one member of the sub-committee should be asked to write the first draft.  The sub-committee can then use the evaluation criteria to review and revise the draft before sending it to the entire board.

When the sub-committee has completed its work, the draft policy should be added as an action item to the agenda of an upcoming board meeting. The draft policy should be sent to the entire board for review prior to a scheduled meeting so that everyone is prepared to discuss it. 

Sample Policies with Template:  This is an example of two “Borrowing Materials by Staff”policies based on the template in Creating Policies for Results. As noted above, the template asks neutral questions that each board must answer based on the library’s mission and goals.  Boards can and will answer the questions in the template quite differently.  That is clearly illustrated in these two examples.

Evaluation Criteria:  Use these criteria to evaluate your current policy and the draft of your revised policy statement and regulations.