ALTA Trustee Handbook

In this section:

Printer Friendly Version

Section II: The Library Trustee




When you agreed to be a public library trustee, you consented to a fiduciary obligation to undertake several legal and moral obligations. The moral obligations simply include belief in the importance and value of libraries, desire to contribute to their growth and development, and endorsement of your library’s Vision and Mission. The legal ones are more complex.

The Public Trust


A “TRUST” is a legal relationship which is created when one or more persons holds legal title to property, but another person or persons has the right to the enjoyment or benefit from that property.

As a library trustee, whether municipal, intermunicipal, or system, you have been given a fiduciary duty – you have been entrusted by your community with the responsibility for your public library.

You represent the interest of this and future generations in the management of the library services. The Board is a creator of policy, employer of personnel, controller of finances, and advocate of libraries.

20 questions not-for-profit board directors should ask about overseeing management of risk (2009)–ask-about-overseeing-management-of-risk

(Or use this shortened URL:

As a trustee, you have agreed under the common law:

  • To use the same care, diligence, and skills in managing the library’s affairs as you would your own.
  • To become informed about the business of the Board and applicable policy and legislation, and to take advantage of learning opportunities to become a more effective trustee.
  • Not to use the library’s affairs to your own advantage. If you stand to profit from an action or decision of the Board, you must declare that interest, and may not participate in discussion or vote pertaining to it.
  • To keep confidential any private information you learn in the course of your activity as a trustee, both during and after your term.
  • To put the best interests of the public library before your own or any other when you are acting as a trustee.
  • Not to agree in advance to vote a certain way or turn a decision in a particular direction.

As a trustee, you are protected from personal liability for library debts and obligations. However, if you are negligent or in breach of your duty as a trustee (fiduciary duty) or knowingly collaborate with another who has committed such a breach, you may be sued for any loss sustained by the library as a result.

Role and Responsibilities of the Trustee



Trustees are appointed to the Board by their municipal council for a term of up to three years, and may be reappointed in accordance with The Libraries Act.

Best practices for being an effective trustee include:

  • Believing and supporting the vision and mission of your library.
  • Being aware of your legal responsibilities as a trustee.
  • Contributing your knowledge, experience, or expertise in a major management area: finance, personnel, program, policy, or advocacy.
  • Becoming aware of issues affecting your library.
  • Handling Board business effectively and fairly.
  • Maintaining an active library membership.
  • Developing awareness of the difference between Board and staff roles.
  • Increasing your own and other trustees’ knowledge of library matters through discussion, ongoing orientation, and attendance at workshops and conferences.
  • Serving on at least one Board committee.
  • Embracing the Alberta Library Trustees’ Association Code of Ethics and Canadian Federation of Library Associations.

As a trustee, you will always be perceived as representing the library in your community. Even though you may personally disagree with a Board decision and are free to debate it during Board meetings, the Board speaks with one voice, and what you say in public should always endorse Board decisions.

“Intellectual Freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive, and disseminate ideas.”

– American Library Association

Trustee Checklists


Meeting Checklist


Board Positions


Most Boards have a common structure. They consist of a leader (Chair), supporting executive members, a financial officer, a member to look after record keeping, and supporting members to make decisions. The following are some basic job descriptions for the primary roles on a library board.


  • Provides leadership to the Board.
  • Sets the tone and climate for Board activity.
  • Ensures that the Board meets requirements of trusteeship.
  • Determines the need for meetings, sets the time, sets the agenda, and chairs meetings according to procedure accepted by the Board.
  • Calls meetings to order and adjourns them within the appointed times.
  • Pursues knowledge of Board and chair responsibilities, appropriate legislation, bylaws, policies, and rules of order through ongoing development and education opportunities.
  • Summarizes and brings closure to discussion, without introducing personal opinions and biases.
  • Facilitates the contribution of all trustees to Board business.
  • Ensures that Board plans are followed, adhering to legislation, bylaws, and policy.
  • Ensures that proper records are kept and signs adopted minutes of meetings.
  • Has signing authority for library accounts.
  • Implements the decisions of the Board, usually assigning specific tasks or delegating to committee.
  • Ensures that committee chairs are in place, and may appoint committee chairs.


  • Assumes duties of the chair in the absence of the chair.
  • May have signing authority on library accounts.
  • May have on-going assigned duties, such as trustee recruitment or orientation.


  • Records minutes of Board meetings and provides copies to trustees at least one week prior to next meeting, together with agendas and other required materials.
  • Maintains a file of original minutes and copies of reports, correspondence, etc., at the library.
  • Notifies Board members of meetings.
  • Handles library correspondence as directed by the Board.
  • May hold signing authority for library accounts.
  • Acts as chair if both chair and vice-chair are absent.
  • Confirms locations for meetings.
  • Brings required materials (Board manual, minutes, and reports) to meetings.
  • Assists chair in developing agenda.

Note: Boards may choose to have a non-trustee recording secretary who may be staff or a volunteer; if staff, duties must be in job description and time is paid.


  • Chairs finance committee; prepares agenda for finance committee meetings.
  • Sets up and/or monitors bookkeeping/accounting procedures.
  • Is familiar with current accounting practice and applicable legislation.
  • Submits a financial summary and status report to Board meetings.
  • Has, with two or three others, signing authority for library accounts.
  • Prepares, with the senior staff person, an annual financial report.
  • Ensures the annual report required by Public Library Services Branch Development is properly properly prepared and submitted.
  • Maintains a file of potential revenue sources, including application criteria, procedures, and deadlines, and ensures that grants and special funding are correctly applied for.
  • Presents the Board’s budget and estimate of funds to council and other funding bodies.
  • Spearheads the development of Board financial policy.
  • Takes advantage of training opportunities to enhance knowledge of library financial management.
  • Some boards may choose to combine the positions of secretary and treasurer into one position, however, that person will perform all of the duties outlined above.

Trustee Recruitment and Orientation



Library trustees can only be appointed by the municipal council that established the board. Most councils would probably welcome the Board’s active assistance, especially if the Board has developed a strong partnership with the council. The Board could offer to participate in a recruitment committee, thereby ensuring that the Board’s needs for individuals with the necessary interests and expertise will be met.

For more information, refer to the Appendix A: Board Job Descriptions and various Board Development Resources in Appendix B: Further Resources


No business would expect to hire a new employee and not supply background information about the organization, specialized training, and necessary updates. Boards, however, often appear to expect trustees to be able to govern the complexities of the public library with little or no related background or education.

Library boards are required to have an orientation policy. Through an ongoing orientation process, the Board ensures that a new trustee has enough information to quickly become an effective and contributing member. Making orientation a regular part of Board business also helps more experienced trustees remain up-to-date on important changes, issues, and developments – an excellent beginning to trustee education!

Lacombe Library Board has an orientation module available:

Brooks Trustee Board also has an orientation module available:

Trustee orientation:

  • Makes a new trustee feel welcome and needed.
  • Increases efficiency and saves time.
  • Decreases frustration.
  • Helps every member of the Board utilize skills fully and explore interests.
  • Fosters a sense of unified purpose.
  • Provides continuity.

The orientation process should include:

  • A meeting with the Board Chair or Vice-Chair prior to the first Board meeting.
  • A tour of the library and review of the services and programs it offers.
  • An explanation of library funding.
  • An explanation of Board operations, including meeting schedules, committee structure and responsibilities, and trustee roles and responsibilities.
  • A review of the Board Manual: Vision, Mission, bylaws, policies, budget, legislation, etc.
  • Pairing with an experienced trustee for the first few meetings.
  • A scheduled orientation from time to time for the entire Board.

Basics of a Board Manual


Every trustee should have a current copy of the Board Manual, which should contain:

  • The Board’s Vision, Mission, Bylaws, and Goals and Objectives (Plan of Service).
  • The municipal bylaw under which the library was established.
  • A brief history of the library.
  • Self-governance, operational, and advocacy policies.
  • Names, contact information, and brief biographies of current Board members.
  • Standing committee terms of reference and members.
  • Calendar of Board, committee, and other library related meetings and events.
  • List of library programs and types of resources.
  • Community profile and needs assessment summary.
  • Rules of order, rules of the table, and procedures
  • governing conduct of meetings adopted by the Board.
  • Budget and three previous financial reports.
  • Minutes of the three most recent Board meetings.
  • Annual Board report.
  • Libraries Act and Libraries Regulation.
  • Alberta Library Trustees’ Association Handbook.

Assembling such a manual is a huge task, best done over an extended period. The key to keeping it current is to set aside a portion of every Board and committee meeting to review, evaluate, and update it. Ten to fifteen minutes should be enough. Doing this on a regular basis ensures you won’t be faced with doing it all at once – an almost impossible job!

Trustee Education


Orientation is only the beginning of the education you need. Effective trustees look for opportunities to enhance their skills. Some ways to cultivate excellence might include:

  • Developing skills in policy development by participating in trustee training opportunities, checking out sample policies from other libraries, and studying library legislation and resources.
  • Learning to make effective presentations to councils, other funders, and the community.
  • Soliciting policy-related recommendations from staff and patrons.
  • Becoming involved in provincial, national, and international trustee organizations.
  • Participating in library-related conferences, workshops, and meetings, and networking with other library folk whenever possible.
  • Talking – and listening – to your community about your library at every opportunity.
  • Transferring personal growth and skill development from other areas of your life to your work as a trustee.

You can learn to be a more effective trustee through:

  • The annual Alberta Library Conference every spring.
  • The Trustee Workshops, sponsored by ALTA, and other workshops presented by or sponsored by ALTA.
  • Library Board Basics Workshops, on topics such as the Libraries Act, roles & responsibilities of library trustees, and more, offered by the Public Library Services Branch of Alberta Municipal Affairs.
  • The online resources on many aspects of library trusteeship listed in the Trustee Resource Centre on the ALTA website.
  • The Online Trustee Education Modules, a series of modules on topics critical to effective trusteeship.
  • Workshops and conferences presented by regional library systems.
  • Other library events, conferences, and seminars.
  • Other trustees.
  • Seminars, workshops, and other personal growth and adult education opportunities, as they arise.

Excellent trustees continually qualify themselves for the job as they serve. It is up to the Board to facilitate their efforts. This means including money for trustee education in the budget.