From Challenge to Recharge: Preparing Your Library Board to Uphold Intellectual Freedom

Foundations & Trustees, Midwinter Meeting/Annual Conference, Policies, Professional Ethics

If your library were faced with an intellectual freedom challenge, would your board have your back?

The United For Libraries President’s Program for ALA Annual Conference 2021, “Challenges & Crises: Preparing Your Board of Trustees,” delivered earned wisdom and practical tips to ensure your library board is willing and prepared to uphold intellectual freedom. 

The live session featured two panelists from Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Library:  

  • William Shorter, Jr., Board Chairman and recipient of the ALA Trustee Citation in 2021, and 
  • Skip Auld, Chief Executive Officer with more than forty years experience working in public and academic libraries,

along two panelists from Fairfax County (VA) Public Library:

  • Jessica Hudson, Director, whose work focuses on equity, access, and community engagement, and 
  • Christine Jones, Deputy Director, who emphasizes leadership development, transparency, and equity.

David Paige, treasurer of the Conway (NH) Public Library Board and 2020-21 United for Libraries president, moderated the discussion.

Clockwise from top-left: David Paige, William Shorter Jr., Jessica Hudson, Christine Jones, and Skip Auld.

Skip Auld shared his experience navigating opposition to Drag Queen Story Hour programming, in which some challenges were issued by library board members themselves. The controversy prompted the Anne Arundel County Public Library Board to consider a policy that required prior approval for any library programming considered potentially “controversial.” With advocacy from Annapolis Pride and support from the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, the Board instead approved a Program Selection Policy that provides guidelines similar to a material selection policy for library programming. The Program Selection Policy clearly emphasizes both intellectual freedom and diversity and inclusion, stating “the Library affirms and supports its customers’ freedom and responsibility to choose programs to attend according to their needs, individual tastes or family values” and “the Library recognizes the diversity of community interests and needs and selects programs accordingly.”

Jessica Hudson and Christine Jones related their experiences with a board member who misappropriated meeting time to voice complaints about the Fairfax County Public Library’s collection practices and virtual book displays. Jones described how the controversy led to a “virtual picketing” of board meetings that were open to the public and held online due to the pandemic. In response to the board member’s concerns, library collections services staff demonstrated how their purchasing decisions and book displays mapped directly to the demographics of their service community. 

Both Christine Jones and William Shorter, Jr. emphasized library challenges as opportunities for community engagement – and even library board recruitment. Shorter reflected that while people may have conflicting opinions on what the library should do, they are generally acting in good faith out of a shared belief in the importance of the library and its role in the community. “It’s important to give everyone a certain level of grace,” he said. Jones advised that

“Every complaint that someone is willing to share with you is an opportunity to build a bridge.”

She and Hudson turned the controversy over Fairfax County Public Library’s collection and display practices into a board recruitment opportunity, welcoming diverse new members to their library’s governance body.

Library boards should be prepared to support their library in the face of intellectual freedom challenges. David Paige advised, “Every single board should expect that these kinds of issues will come before them and be prepared.” The panel offered practical strategies to ensure that library boards are able to navigate intellectual freedom challenges constructively, rather than with a reactionary response.

First, library board members and library staff leadership should have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and agree on who has decision-making power on strategic versus operational issues.

Boards should also adopt best practices for library governance, including having bylaws and a manual for members that are regularly reassessed and updated. A board membership manual is a useful tool for onboarding new trustees to the roles and responsibilities of the board. Board meetings should have a transparent agenda and decision-making protocol, for which Robert’s Rules of Order is one common model. The library should also document and make available its policies with respect to intellectual freedom issues, including material and program selection, access to library materials and resources, meeting rooms and displays, and Internet filtering.

Boards should also be composed of diverse members. Implementing term limits is one way to ensure that board membership can be recharged on a regular basis. Again, trustee onboarding processes and resources, such as a board manual, are best practices in maintaining an effective library board.

Library boards should also adopt a communications plan, so that responsibilities to respond to media inquiries and communications from the general public are clearly outlined.

Finally, library boards and the library staff with whom they work should mutually commit to self-care. Paige acknowledged that navigating intellectual freedom challenges and other library controversies takes its toll, and expressed the importance of library staff and trustees alike feeling supported and united in a common cause: to make information and cultural enrichment available to all who seek it.

United for Libraries provides additional resources in its Trustee Tip Sheet. “Challenges and Crises” was co-presented by IFRT and the ALA Chapter Relations Office (CRO).

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