Advisory Committees: Making Them Work

By Carol Sheffer

In New York State, the Regulations of the Commissioner of Education require public library systems participating in the Coordinated Outreach State aid program to impanel an advisory committee representative of target populations served by this categorical aid program (or persons serving such target groups) and at least one member librarian. No two advisory committees are the same, nor should they be.

Outreach coordinators frequently ask how they' might improve the advisory committees with which they work. There are no simple solutions nor magic formulas. What follows are 11 brief suggestions, recommendations or hints for persons creating or working with advisory committees.

  1. If an advisory committee is working well, don't change it. It's tempting, after reading an article on improvement of any sort, to want to try something new. Certainly gradual change can be a very positive thing, and radical change is sometimes the only credible option, but use judgement in determining which is necessary. The old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is applicable to advisory committees.
  2. Clearly define the role of an advisory committee. This appears fairly basic, but if advisory committee members feel nebulous about their mission, they will be too uncomfortable to be of assistance. A written charge to the committee, agreed upon by system staff, should be provided to each committee member. This is the time to emphasize that the committee is advisory. Some very dedicated people who might make excellent trustees will not do well as a member of an advisory committee. There are those who need to know that their decisions will be definitely implemented and are not satisfied with making recommendations which may or may not be acted upon.
  3. Clearly define the role of an advisory committee member. Prepare a job description for committee members. Explain in as much detail as possible the types of activities advisory committees will be expected to perform. If there is no mandatory length of term for the committee members' appointment, set one. Change of membership is positive for both the committee and the committee members.
  4. Consider appointing agency line staff rather than the agency director to the advisory committee. There are definitely times when it is desirable to appoint an agency head to the advisory committee. Often the director can make instant commitments for something that will impact on your library's program. This can be extremely helpful. The down side of this is that there are many demands on the time of agency heads. This may mean that the wonderful person who accepted appointment to the committee is unable to attend meetings or offer the "44 extras" that were anticipated. By appointing an assistant director or other staff to the committee, it is possible for you to ensure attendance at meetings and that the additional work needed will happen. A good mix of agency heads and line staff, rotated on a regular basis, will provide fresh assistance.
  5. Involve library staff in the selection of advisory committee members. Library staff and colleagues can give excellent assistance in broadening the base of the advisory committee. Not only can they provide contacts to social service professionals and agency people, they can also help identify library users who could make an excellent contribution.
  6. Put a time limit on committee meetings. Unless distances preclude it, set a maximum time for committee meetings generally one-and-a-half to two hours. Create an agenda, with times next to each item, and then stick to it. Busy people will appreciate being able to plan their time, and the focused nature of the meeting will impress them. There can be a social time after the meeting for those who want to linger.
  7. Be sure that each committee member has an opportunity to speak. Use the best group process techniques and be sure that each committee member has an opportunity to speak if he/she wants to contribute. Don't allow one or two strong personalities to dominate the meeting, even if they have wonderful ideas. A committee is a team with each person participating.
  8. Consider turning your advisory committee into a working committee. If the committee is task-oriented, members may react better to actual work assignments. The group might like to work on a public relations activity or help annotate a bibliography. This can give the committee a focus which will help them work better (i.e., as a team) in an advisory capacity.
  9. Vary meeting locations. Using a variety of sites may allow easier access to meetings by committee members. Choosing actual program sites for some meeting may allow committee members to learn more about the programs on which they will advise. Have meetings at the agencies represented on the committee. People like to show others what they're doing and hosting a committee meeting would give them that opportunity.
  10. Use committee suggestions whenever possible and let the committee know what has been used. Everyone knows it is not possible to use every recommendation of an advisory committee. That makes it all the more important to point out each and every committee suggestion that has been used. Knowing that their opinions are valued will keep committee members interested and active. Give credit to advisory committee members when possible. People like to see their names in print and recognition of them is important. A demonstration of genuine appreciation is never out of place.
  11. Enjoy working with the advisory committee! Advisory committee members will sense any hesitation or reservations the outreach coordinator has. Although not members of the committee, coordinators are the leaders of the group and their attitudes will set the tone of the meetings. Be as relaxed and receptive as possible. Try not to become frustrated if there aren't immediate, positive results. Any feeling of resentment of the requirement of having an advisory committee is likely to be felt by the committee members and will stifle the productivity of the group.

As mentioned above, these are merely a few brief suggestions. Each person will have ideas that will work very well. Each advisory committee has its own personality, which should be used to advantage. Advisory committees can work. The leader can make the difference. -- from The Bookmark, Volume 46, Number IV, Summer 1988. Albany, New York: New York State Education Department, New York State Library. pp. 265-266.

Last Updated: June 19, 2014 -- asm; for questions or comments, contact Mary Beth Farr