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Primer on Library Policies

The Michigan Constitution grants the governing boards of public libraries the authority and responsibility to adopt regulations for the public use of libraries. These regulations are commonly called policies.

Policies are necessary whenever the board is faced with competing legitimate interests. The final policy is a balance between the interests. A clear example of this kind of balance is the typical "hours open" library policy. The board must balance the legitimate demand for more service hours, or more nighttime or weekend service hours, with the legal demands to operate within the approved library budget. Just as busy lifestyles demand more hours, budget constraints demand creative allocation of the costs for more personnel, increased utility use, and building security. The final policy of "hours open" strikes a balance that all parties can live with, at least for a time. Changing circumstances lead to policy review and reformulation.

Changing circumstances include population growth or decline; changing lifestyles; growth or decline of other institutions, such as schools, shopping centers, and recreation areas; fluctuations in funding for the library; new technology; and changes in the laws that affect libraries. As the library board formulates policies to address these items, trustees need to ask four basic questions:

1. Does the policy conform to current law? Changes in the law often precipitate policy review. Remember the changes in many public policies with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act? In Michigan, many public libraries had to review and change their investment policies when the Investment of Surplus Funds Act was amended in 1997. Sometimes the answer to this question is not straightforward because the status of the law in a certain area is still being developed. Just think of the uncertainty surrounding the whole area of Internet access. Legislators at both the state and federal levels are still examining the issues surrounding this technology. The courts are just beginning to hear cases that challenge various efforts to formulate public policy in this area. Competent legal counsel is a necessary expense when writing policy.

2. Is the policy reasonable? Many policies, although legal on the surface, could be successfully challenged if they are unreasonable. Most libraries have policies that establish consequences for the non-return of borrowed materials. Restrictions on borrowing additional materials, payment for replacement of lost materials, or fines are typical consequences. It would be reasonable to suspend borrowing privileges until materials are returned; it would probably be unreasonable to banish offending patrons from the library for the rest of their lives.

3. Can the policy be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner? Policies must be applied fairly to all patrons. Circulation policies, for example, should be the same for all; board members or volunteers should not get special treatment. Giggling adolescents should not be treated more harshly than loud-speaking adults. A policy, no matter how reasonable or legal, might be challenged if it is not applied equally to all.

4. Is the enforcement of the policy measurable? It is difficult to enforce a policy fairly if the behavior specified or prohibited by the policy is not quantifiable. Most libraries, for example, have circulation policies that limit the number of items any one patron may borrow at any one time. A library is inviting a challenge if the policy states that the number of items borrowed must be "reasonable" and kept for a "reasonable period of time." Staff then determine what "reasonable" means on a case-by-case basis. Charges of favoritism or discrimination would soon follow. A good circulation policy would state a definite number of items loaned for a specific period of time.

Public library policies are enforceable only if the policies are in writing and adopted formally by the library board during an open meeting. Once adopted by the board, the policies should be promulgated, or made known by posting them in the library, giving copies to patrons, or highlighting in press releases.

Public library policy development is not easy. Luckily, few libraries need to start from scratch. It is perfectly acceptable to look at what other public libraries have done to address their policy needs. If you do use another library's policy as a pattern, make sure that it accurately addresses the needs of your local situation. Make sure, too, that the policy can pass the test of the four questions listed above.

The websites for many public libraries post that library's policies. A few years ago, a Michigan Library Association committee compiled two policy manuals with a variety of policies in effect in public libraries throughout the state. Libraries generously shared their policies and the editorial committee published the best. Most of the library cooperatives have copies of these manuals for their members' use.

By Ellen Richardson
Library Law Specialist
July 2000

Updated 04/27/2006