Where to Start: Creating a Public Library District

If your library is considering a transition to a public library district, follow these steps:

1. Determine the status of your library

Before embarking on a process to change the governance structure or funding mechanism for any library, it is important to have a complete understanding of the library’s current legal status. You can determine the status of your library by consulting with the New York State Library's Division of Library Development in Albany or with your public library system. These entities may have microfiche copies of documents related to charter actions of public libraries. These documents can be a wealth of information for libraries seeking to track changes in their legal status over the years.

More information on the various types of public libraries in New York State and their primary characteristics.

2. Survey the community’s feelings and attitudes toward library services

Unfortunately, libraries seeking to change their funding and governance structure frequently skip this critical step. The survey, which does not have to be extensive, can help you understand the depth of feeling within the community about the library; provide ideas for things the library can do to broaden its appeal to the public; and most importantly, help establish a rationale for pursuing additional tax support. Your library’s advocacy campaign can use these survey results in support of the library budget vote.

3. Update the library’s long-range plan

Once the survey has been completed, update the library’s long-range plan to incorporate appropriate service enhancements and changes identified by the community. This document will serve as the basis for selecting an appropriate public library district model and a budget amount to be requested by public ballot.

4. Select the appropriate public library district model

The library board must determine the model best suited to the library based on a full discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each model, their knowledge of the community, the results of the community survey, and the library’s long-range plan. In selecting its preferred model, a library should consider all options.  This is an opportune time to consider expanding the library’s formal chartered service area to incorporate areas around the library that are unserved by any library or paying less than their fair share for library services.  It is also a good time to consider consolidating services or merging with other libraries that may be nearby.   Instead of two or more underfunded libraries serving small areas of population, it may be advantageous for two or more libraries to merge into a single library with multiple branches and a reasonable budget.

5. Develop a timeline and an implementation plan to achieve the model selected

These will include the "how to" steps for implementing the selected public library district model. It is strongly recommended that that the library board have a full understanding of the entire process for creating a new library district, especially the steps after the vote to create the new district that will be necessary to dissolve the existing library and transfer its assets to the new district. The library board should retain legal counsel, establish an implementation committee and timetable, and select a committed and dedicated person to lead the effort. The library board must play a lead role in the process, with library staff providing assistance where appropriate. Although the library board can hire a consultant to oversee the process, it is imperative to have strong, passionate local leadership of the effort.

The implementation plan must include an overall strategy for the campaign -- i.e., will it be low-key, with little or no public education, or will it involve a large-scale public education effort?

If the selected strategy calls for a full-fledged education and advocacy effort, the library should develop a public education plan that identifies the steps needed to educate the public on the value of the library and the reasons for voting for the proposition. The plan should also identify any organized opposition effort that may arise during the campaign as well as a strategy to counter the opposition.

6. Assess your chances for a successful outcome

The process of transitioning to a public library district or obtaining passage of a funding proposition on a public ballot requires a firm commitment on the part of the staff and the board of trustees. Before embarking on this process, the library board and staff should assess the library's readiness to ensure that conditions are favorable for a positive outcome. The degree of readiness can be assessed by completing a readiness checklist of questions. The ultimate decision to proceed should be guided by responses to these questions.

7. Keep a positive focus throughout the process – regardless of the outcome

If a vote to establish a public library district fails, do not take the failure as a statement that the public does not support the library or that the situation is hopeless. Several public library district votes have failed in their first or even second attempts. The key is to learn from the past, re-visit your public library district model to determine any needed changes, and develop new strategies to seek public support of the measure. As a library trustee or director, you must remain committed to the ideals and goals of the library and your responsibility to make every attempt to achieve a financially secure environment.

Last Updated: July 28, 2009 -- asm [created January 27, 2005]; for questions or comments, contact us