Public Library Policies – Development Tips & Samples

The library boards’ ultimate responsibility is to ensure and protect the reputation of the institution – best realized through the adoption of clearly written library policies. Written policies provide consistency for patrons and staff, help to resolve misunderstandings, reduce incidents of conflict and help to protect from litigation.

The MHLS Public Library Policies Development Tips & Samples is divided into four key parts:

Policy Basics | Internal Policies | External Policies | Essential Documents

Policy Basics –
What is a policy, parts of a policy, and how to write one.
Prioritizing your library board’s policy-writing.

Policy Basics

  • Policies should be in writing.
  • Policies should be written in such a way that they can be applied objectively.
  • Policies must be enforced consistently. To ensure that they are, review all policies with your director annually and ask your director to review relevant policies with staff and volunteers.
  • Policies should provide an appeal mechanism for patrons even if that mechanism is informal, such as a conversation with the director.
  • Once you have policies and procedures adopted by the board of trustees, follow them exactly — do not ignore your policies.
  • If a policy no longer seems reasonable, change it.
Policy Definitions & Parts
  • Practice: The way things are actually done in your library. Practice may or may not be supported by policy statements, regulations, and procedures. Practice is generally conveyed via oral tradition as a part of a new staff member’s orientation and it can become very subjective.
    • Example – The cash handling procedure says that one staff member should count the cash and another should verify the count, but we are a small branch so the clerk takes care of it alone.
  • Policy ElementsThe term used to refer to the four components of a policy: policy statements, regulations, procedures, and guidelines. 
    1. Policy Statement: A brief, written statement that describes WHY the library does something. Policy statements are written from the customer point of view and approved by the library’s governing authority.
      • Example – To facilitate the management of the library and enhance service to the public, all library units will collect and report statistics on a regular schedule.
    2. Regulation: Specific, written riles that further define the policy, describing what must be done to support the policy. They are normally approved by the library’s governing authority.
      • Example – All library fines, fees, and overdue materials must be cleared before a library user may renew his or her card. 
    3. Procedure: Written step-by-step descriptions of how the staff will carry our the policy and regulations. Procedures are more flexible than regulations and will change as the tools available to staff change. Frontline staff may be allowed to modify the procedures in certain circumstances. Procedures are developed by staff and approved by library managers. They are not reviewed or approved by the library’s governing authority.
      • Boards can get bogged down with details if they try to write procedures into policy. The following definitions should help you keep it simple:
        • Policy – A written statement that describes how things will be handled, setting the conditions and terms of a situation.
        • Procedure – A written, step-by-step description of how the staff will carry out a policy.
      • Example – The library staff member who books a tour will: (1) Complete the Tour Request Form; (2) Place it in the branch manager’s in-box.
    4. Guideline: A description of best practices that provides suggestions for staff on the most efficient ways to implement policy statements, regulations, and procedures. Guidelines are more philosophical than policy statements, regulations, or procedures and often are developed by staff committees. Guidelines are always approved by the library director but are rarely reviewed by the library’s governing authority. Typical guidelines include reference guidelines and guidelines for serving people with special needs.
      • Example – Library staff assigned to provide information services will promptly and courteously greet all customers. 

[Adapted from New York Library Trustees Online’s “Policy Definitions”]

Types of Policies
How To Write A Policy
Tips & Resources

  • Do some research – Review policy samples available on the Internal Policies,  External Policies, and Essential Documents Policies Pages.
  • In addition to those on the web site, other samples are available from Rebekkah Smith-Aldrich, ext. 239 or rsmith@midhudson.org.
  • Draft your policy with your director and other relevant staff.
  • Review the policy with the full board; have your lawyer review your Personnel and other relevant policies; you can request that MHLS staff review your policies as well.
  • Board should vote to accept the final version of the policy.

Here’s a best practice to get you started –Don’t rewrite laws and professional standards within your policies — just adopt them or quote them. For example, it is recommended that your board adopt the following standard American Library Association (ALA) policies:

Four Tests For A Locally-Enforceable Library Policy

Public library trustees are responsible for adopting policies to govern the use of the library and personnel concerns. Public library policies are enforceable only if they are in writing and adopted formally by the library board in an open meeting. In addition, these policies will be valid only if they meet the four tests of legality, reasonableness, nondiscriminatory application, and measurability. Policies that do not meet these tests could be ruled as invalid if challenged in court.

Prior to adopting a new policy or when reviewing a current policy, a library board should ask the following questions to test the policy for legal enforceability:

  1. Does the Policy Comply with Current Statuses? The library board should review the policy to determine whether any provisions would be illegal under state or federal law. For example, a library policy of “no animals or pets allowed” must provide and exception for seeing eye dogs and other support animals. It is not legal for a library to refuse entry to people accompanied by licensed support animals.
  2. Is the Policy Reasonable (including reasonable penalties)? Some policies, although not illegal per se, could still be ruled invalid because they are unreasonable. For example, state laws usually authorize the library’s governing board to adopt regulations or citizen’s access to the library, which includes setting hours the library is open to the public. Let’s say a library board decides to set the library’s hours as “10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Friday.” Although it would not be illegal to set such hours, a court could find the policy to be unreasonable because in effect it denies library access to citizens who work or go to school during the day.The library board should also examine proposed policies to determine if any penalties are unreasonable. For example, it would be reasonable for a “no skateboarding in the library” policy to include a “penalty” that violators would be asked to leave for the rest of the day. It would be unreasonable to penalize the skateboarding patrons by banning them from the library”for the rest of their lives.”
  3. Could There Be Discriminatory Application of the Policy? In order to be legally enforceable, library policies must be applied fairly to all patrons. Courts will invalidate library policies which are not applied equally to all patrons and are used to discriminate against certain groups of patrons. For example, a “no sleeping” policy might be enforced against homeless patrons but not against other patrons (such as the mayor or even a library board member) who drift off while reading in a comfy chair. Some libraries might have “no noise” policies which they enforce only against tables of giggling adolescents but never against tables of loud-speaking adults.
  4. Is the Policy Measurable? It is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce a policy fairly if the policy and penalty are not quantifiable. Policies should be written clearly so that library board members, library staff, and library patrons can read a library policy and know what constitutes a “violation” of the policy. For example, if a library has a policy which states that patrons will lose their borrowing privileges if they have “too many overdue books for too long,”  the definitions of “too many” and “too long” are not clear and may result in unfair application when interpreted by different staff members. On the other hand, a quantifiable policy states that patrons will lose their borrowing privileges if they have “library material which has been overdue for three weeks or longer and if the patron has not returned the material or paid the replacement cost or made arrangements with the library for payment.” The policy also provides that the penalty, “loss of borrowing privileges,”  will continue until the material is returned and/or paid for.

[Adapted from New York Library Trustees Online’s “Policy Definitions”]

Reviewing & Rewriting Existing Policies
  • When reviewing and rewriting existing library policies, library boards should ask themselves whether there is still a viable reason to have the policy in the first place.
  • Consider: Does your policy meet the “Four Tests For A Locally-Enforceable Library” Policy? If not, maybe that policy needs to be re-written or eliminated.
  • Some boards have eliminated long-standing policies which have outlived their original usefulness to the public library and have opted instead for a more positive image for the library in the community. These include policies such as overdue fines, rental fees, and restrictions of number of materials borrowed at one time.

[Adapted from New York Library Trustees Online’s “Policy Definitions”]

How To Prioritize Policy Writing
Writing policies for your library can, at first, seem like a daunting task but if you break down your policy writing on a risk-management level you will notice that some Library Policies are more essential than others. To help you decide which policies your board should tackle first, MHLS has come up with a list of “Essential Policies“. Once you have all your must-have “Essential Policies” complete and approved, your board can start to work on the remainder.
Download the MHLS Essential Documents Inventory Workbook (Excel) Updated October 2023.

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