Thank God I Wasn’t Here When It Was Relevant

I have served on my county library system board for over half a year now.

They say public libraries aren’t relevant any more but as the title of the post suggests, if this is what the library is like when it is irrelevant, I am glad I wasn’t around when it was relevant. In my short time on the board, we have had to review or construct policies to address things like harassment of staff by visitors, people monopolizing meeting rooms to run their businesses out of them, wages and benefits, and had to chart a course of action upon learning poor building construction lead to mold issues.

Libraries may not be as important a source of reading material as they have been in the past, but they definitely serve a need in the community. For every problem that crops up, there are 500 people who regularly avail themselves of the facilities, programming and services.  I was entirely unaware of the web of relationships the library had with other community organizations, businesses and social groups.

I have served on a number boards before but this is the first one I have been on that has really engaged me so thoroughly in exercising what I preach in terms of conscientious board governance and fiscal oversight. In addition to addressing programming and policies, there is a lot more money running through a six branch library system than you might imagine.

There was a story a year ago about the financial benefits received by the former president of the Queens (NY) Borough Library system (as well as the alleged liberties he took with the finances.)  It left me wondering what sort of financial controls the borough library system had in place given that we on the board are required to authorize the payment of the bills every month. Though our list is pretty long so I imagine it would be easy to slip some personal expenses in there unnoticed.

I have also tried to bring some of the good practices I have written about to the organization. I stress “tried” because just when I was going to note the professional development budget hadn’t really been used during the year and encourage more staff development, the library director requested that staff be allowed to attend an upcoming conference.

Obviously, like most of us that serve on boards outside our own organization, I have brought other valuable insights and practices to the table.  The experience has certainly improved some of the practices in which we engage in my organization.

The point of this post is mostly to encourage people to serve on other non-profit boards if you already aren’t and to really pay attention to how that responsibility can inform the practices in your own organization.

As I wrote this, I remembered one of my earliest encounters with a perceptual barrier to participation: When I was about 11-13 the librarians encouraged me to start using the adult section of the library.  I had passed by the threshold many times, but I was anxious about entering and being told I didn’t belong there.  I can still connect with the emotions of that memory so I can empathize with people who show up to my performance hall for the first time.

Of course, my other purpose in writing this post is to encourage everyone to support their local library!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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