editorial (2005-42)

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Revenge of the Library Board?

Revenge of the Library Board?

This Monday afternoon’s Knox County Commission meeting will witness a showdown between those who favor a governing board for the library, appointed by elected county commissioners, and those who prefer an “advisory board” without strong authority, under the administration of the county mayor.

It could sound like an esoteric question only to those who haven’t been reading the news for the last three years, and who don’t know any librarians.

It’s the current battle in a struggle that was never fully resolved three years ago, when the retirement of a library director touched off a startling series of power plays that resulted in the board of trustees’ choice to elevate one of its own members to the influential and well-paid position of library director. Their chosen director, a part-time school librarian, had never held a significant administrative post before, but was suddenly in charge of an 18-branch library system with a multi-million-dollar budget and a staff of 236. Board members protested that he was a good fellow.

The move astonished librarians across the country, as national library journals editorialized about our “political favoritism.”

The incident focused a degree of attention uncustomary to the library’s board of trustees and how they got their jobs:especially concerning the apparent fact that they were often appointed without regard to their knowledge of, or dedication to, the public library. County Commissioners’ carelessness at filling the posts left some library advocates with the impression that the apparently democratic system was something of a joke. Some library trustees empowered with making major decisions concerning the library were reportedly not even library patrons.

State legislation required that library boards be selected by county-government representatives, but under the circumstances the legislature made an exception for Knox County, allowing recently inaugurated county Mayor Mike Ragsdale to take the reins of the library director selection process. As a result, the governing board was demoted to “advisory” capacity.

However, due to a sunset provision in the state legislation, the “advisory board” era would end six months from now, restoring governing power to the board of trustees. The bill before County Commission Monday would permanently eliminate the library’s board of trustee system.

It’s hard to separate the choice for establishing a long-term governing principle for the public library from personal loyalty and specific ambitions for the library system.

At the bottom of the passion for eliminating the board-of-trustee system is the fact that many library supporters like and trust Mike Ragsdale and the library’s current director, Larry Frank, who Ragsdale’s selection process ushered into office.

Library use is up, library-card ownership is up, circulation is up, attendance at both adult and children’s programs is up, use of public-access computers is up.

The fact that Ragsdale is a hero to library supporters today is in itself remarkable for those who remember the suspicions about the newly elected county mayor three years ago—that he allegedly didn’t own a library card (he did), and cared little about the public library (his politically costly attempts to use public money to build a new main library would seem to suggest otherwise).

The Friends of the Knox County Public Library, an organization of library patron-volunteers whose book sales help raise money for the system, released a “position paper” strongly recommending that the current system, with an advisory board rather than a board of trustees, be perpetuated.

It’s interesting, though, considering the fact that the current board has no real power, that the statement advocates several careful changes to the advisory board which might have made the old board of trustees more palatable: increasing the number of board members from 11 to 13, the two additional seats to be appointed by the county mayor; that board members be strictly term-limited; and that board members be subjected to a series of qualifications—that they be library “advocates, not detractors” who are “informed about library matters” and “have a record of working openly and well with others.”

It might seem to be a stage set for compromise.

We don’t think a board should be

The current fear is that a re-empowered board of trustees might send the library slipping backwards, not a prospect easy to contemplate in a rapidly growing county which already operates at a budget only a fraction, per capita, of that of some major cities’ library systems. (Hardly any library system in America operates as many branches at as low a budget as Knox County’s library does.)

However, a properly empanelled board of trustees might even serve to aid some progressive measures in the future. Ragsdale’s initiative to build a much-needed new main library received most of its resistance in rural areas of the county formerly represented on the board of trustees. The movement to build a new main library downtown might have been more popular in the provinces if the citizens felt they had a voice in the matter, and a neighbor who could explain such a decision.

County Commission should proceed with caution. If Commission isn’t ready to commit to the energy it takes to guide a progressive library system befitting a growing urban county with a guarantee of a smart and dynamic library board, it should defer to Mayor Ragsdale and Director Frank, who for the last two years have been doing a very good job.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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