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Focus on Establishment Issues

There are nearly 400 public libraries in the state of Michigan. Although city, township and district libraries account for the majority of the total, county, school district and village public libraries serve a significant number of Michigan citizens. Most public libraries have boards of trustees, either elected or appointed, who are authorized to exercise various powers and fulfill certain duties for the proper functioning of the library. The Michigan state constitution directs that library boards formulate regulations or policies to insure Michigan citizens free access to libraries throughout the state.

Library board members, or trustees, bear the primary responsibility for the public library. This responsibility is shared, however, with the library director and staff, volunteers such as Friends of the Library, and in some cases, with the officials of the local governmental units. The relationship between the library board and any one of these participants can be mutually beneficial and productive or, at times, a source of tension and conflict.

Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the respective roles and responsibilities of Trustees, library director and staff, and Friends of the Library. There is little in the literature, however, about the relationship between the library board and the local governmental unit. A correct understanding of the authority of a district library board may not be applicable to the authority of a township or city library board. The authority of city library boards may differ from municipality to municipality. Understanding the reason for these differences is vital for library trustees and for elected government officials.

As mentioned above, there are six different types of Michigan public libraries. The state statutes authorizing the establishment of these libraries govern not only the powers and duties of the library boards, but also the relationship, if any, with local government authorities. A closer look at two types of libraries will clarify this distinction.

A city public library in Michigan may be established in one of five ways: by resolution of the city council under section 1 of 1877 PA 164 (MCL 397.201); by petition of citizens under section 10 of 1877 PA 164 (MCL 397.210a); by provisions of the city charter; by city ordinance; or by special act. Real differences occur according to the establishment model used. The board of a city library established under section 1 has a five-member appointed board; under section 10a, a six member elected board will govern. In either case, the library board will have those duties and powers outlined in section 5 of the act (MCL 397.205). In contrast, city libraries established by city charter, ordinance or special act may or may not have autonomous boards. The language of the establishment instrument will determine the board's duties and powers. The library may be a department of city government and subject to the administrative rules and regulations of the municipality. The board may be answerable to a nonelected city official, such as the city manager. These distinctions have very real consequences for the board' s ability to hire and fire staff, determine the library budget, manage and build library facilities, and raise money.

A look at the establishment of Michigan district libraries is instructive. The District Library Establishment Act, 1989 PA 24, authorizes elected or appointed boards. The boards are autonomous and have specifically stated powers in regard to budgeting, acquiring and managing property, proposing taxes, and issuing bonds. The establishment instrument, the district library agreement, provides guidelines for the relationship between the district library board and the governing bodies of the participating municipalities.

Many times library trustees are confused about what duties and powers they really have. Questions about the powers of the library board can only be answered if board members know how their particular library was established. The establishment instrument or other documentation should be a part of every library's file. Orientation of board members should include an explanation of the basis for library board authority and responsibilities.

Ellen Richardson, Library Law Specialist
Library of Michigan
July 1996

Updated 04/27/2006