Governing Library Board: An Interview with James E. VanderRoest

When I first started working as an aide in the library, I sometimes helped on the circulation desk. I remember one time when this nice lady came in to drop off some materials, and she asked me, “Are you new here? Nice to meet you. I am the boss of your boss!” She winked and left.

I was so confused! What did that mean? I didn’t recognize her at all – I was pretty sure she wasn’t a regular library employee.

My supervisor laughed, and told me, “It’s OK if you didn’t recognize her. She is one of our board members.”

For people who didn’t grow up in the country (i.e. me), library board could be a completely new concept. Yet, while I was talking to other staff about the board, it seemed like many of them knew of the board, but also might not know about what they actually do.

I was fortunate to interview with James E. VanderRoest, a long-time member and current president of the Kalamazoo Public Library Board of Trustees. He had shared with me the work board members do and things related to the board that “normal” people usually don’t know about.

Can you tell us about yourself? How long have you been a board member, and why do you want to serve in the board?

I have been with the library board for 27 years. I have always loved the library. Library is a good thing to the community. It’s nice to be part of something that do good!

Before 1991, the Kalamazoo Public Library used to be part of the school system. Then in 1991, they separated. The library wanted people to run the board. There were seven slots, and there were 14 of us running for it. I think that’s the only time that had contestant election! I did campaign for it – I met with the representatives in the union, met with the newspaper, and attended public forum.

Can you explain a bit what a library board is and what it does?

The library board is like the school board; it’s all voluntary work, something to do for the community. They are not full-time positions. In most states, libraries are part of the city government, and the boards are appointed. While in Michigan, a lot of them are independent that are supported by mileage. These boards are elected by voters. Board members either have another full-time job or are retired. (Jim is a lawyer himself.)

As a board, we meet once a month to discuss library business. These are public meetings where every one is welcome to attend. I would meet with the library director a couple of times before to go over the agenda. There’s also committees within the board, for example, there’s a finance committee that meets six to seven times a year and a personnel committee that meets periodically. The board president is on all committee, and every board member is on at least one committee. Some committee meets only once or twice a year.

Regarding campaign for mileage, as a board, we don’t officially do things like that, but we each do a lot of callings to different people. We decide what mileage to ask for, but we aren’t the ones who get the mileage pass.

What is the best experience you have had being a board member?

Hiring good people to be directors and to work with them. Hiring the library director is the main job of the board! We represent the community to hire, manage the director, and set a budget. We make sure you (librarians) have the money to buy the books you want to buy.

What are some important qualities you look for when hiring a director?

We want the director to have an understanding of the library role in the community similar to ours (Kalamazoo). We are an institution of democracy that benefits people! We want someone who starts out with that feeling. Most librarians are like that though. We want someone with good managerial skills, good people skills, who can work with the public, who is a good manager, and has good vision for the library.

What would you do if there’s disagreement between the board members and the director?

We all care about the library. 95% of the time we approve what the director suggests. We hire a good person who knows what he is doing. If there’s disagreement, we talk about it, and take a vote. But we have never really had a disagreement or issue come up. You know that everyone wants the best for the library.

What are some things that you think people don’t know about the board?

People think we manage day-to-day operation, but no! And I wouldn’t want to do that. We get reports about it and we enjoy it. We go to programs, but I don’t tell anybody what to do! We trust you (librarians) to do the best! You’ve gotten the experience and education. We think you folks are fabulous!

 

It was interesting to learn about how board members view the library. Jim brought up a good point – the library serves the community – and board members are the community representatives who care about the library. They love the library as much as library workers do!

You can learn more about the roles and work of library trustees from the ALA United for Libraries website.

Cover photo: Meeting Room, under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Alice Law is a MLIS student at Wayne State University. 

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