Monday, October 17, 2005

Board games

I've been making the rounds at local library board meetings. So far, I've been to meetings at five different library systems. There are seven systems in the metro area, so I still have a couple left to go. The libraries range from a one branch suburban system to a large urban system with around 20 locations.

Board governance is definitely on the list of things that I didn't think about much before library school. It never would have occurred to me to observe a meeting. Although most, if not all, library board meetings are open to the public, I don't know if I even realized it was an option. At four out of six meetings (I went to one library twice), I was the only member of the public present. Looks like I'm not the only one who isn't paying attention. As for my fellow spectators at the other meetings: in one case, there were two of us. I got the impression that the other guy was a regular, a self appointed citizen watchdog. At the other, two friends from library school joined me. There were several staff observers at two libraries, but in general the meetings felt cloistered.

There was a noticeable difference in how I was treated at the various meetings. At some, I was introduced (I had called each library in advance to let them know I planned to attend), at others, I was asked to introduce myself, and at another I was an anonymous observer. Four out of five libraries provided food, but I was only invited to partake at one. And finally, only one library opened up the floor for questions from the public. Once, I got to sit at the same table as the board. Otherwise, I sat in a chair off to the side. Not a big deal at the larger meetings with staff observers...at least there were a bunch of us sitting quietly in the corner. But when it's just the nine board members and the library director around a table in the center, and me in a folding chair against the wall? I felt like something of a pariah. Sure, the meeting may be open to the public in name, but I don't think they're expecting (or encouraging) anyone to show up.

The longest meeting was around 3 hours (and that doesn't include the top secret in camera part that I wasn't allowed to watch), and the shortest came in at just under an hour. And no, the longest meeting wasn't at the biggest library.

Being in library school, I'm surrounded by librarians and library-types talking about libraries. The great thing about board meetings is that you get to hear bankers and grandmothers and lawyers and city council members talk about libraries. And they don't say things like MARC or ILS or OPAC very much. Instead, they use words like community and impact. Occasionally, they say things like internet filter. And that's when it gets interesting.

One of the most challenging aspects of being an outside observer is trying to get a read on everything that isn't being said. Someone will fidget, or squint their eyes, or start frantically scribbling on a notepad. Looks or whispers are exchanged. Sometimes you can almost see the bureaucracy. Even when things get tense, it's still cloaked in the pseudo-politeness of Robert's Rules of Order. And then there's the stuff that gets said out loud that you still don't understand (maybe it would have helped if I had been given an agenda).

The real fun comes with sensing the overall vibe. It's like taking the blood pressure reading of a library. Some meetings felt vital and alive, while at others I had to struggle not to yawn. The meetings I enjoyed most were the ones where the board looked to the future and envisioned ways that the library could be better. Other meetings were much more focused on the present and where we are now. Interesting, to be sure, but lacking a sense of momentum.

Personally, I found the meetings fascinating, and if I didn't have night classes, I'd be a regular fixture at one or two of them. If you haven't been, I say give it a try. (And help yourself to some of the cookies.)

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