As a school librarian you are accustomed to getting the job done on your own. There is rarely a clerk or even volunteers. And now you have to keep in mind the growing movement to ban LGBTQ+ and race-related books while upholding the ALA Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. This is the time for lateral thinking. If you haven’t done so as yet, consider creating an advisory board. Common in corporations, they are a rarity among school librarians but can be a huge benefit in the current changing climate.
First, get approval from your principal to set up the board. Let them know you’re doing this not only to help the library, but to help the administration and school should there be an issue. (This is a good time to check your negotiating skills). When looking for members, you want them to represent diverse perspectives. Teachers, students, parents, and public librarians are obvious potential members as are administrators (this may be a condition of having the board) and even local business owners.
Next, keep your board a manageable size. Five to six members are a good number. Small boards will get more done as members can easily see why they are each important. It’s also easier to get a mutually agreeable meeting time and if you need a vote, a consensus is simpler as well.
In CEOs Make or Break the Value of Advisory Boards, Larry Robertson presents the business world’s three “pivotal questions.” Libraries can use the same three as you set up and maintain your advisory board.
- What’s the Role? – Before you can fill the advisory board, you will need to know what they will advise on. Yes, you want their input and views on issues/topics affecting the school library, but what are the specifics of this? Perhaps you want to discuss the possibility of a diversity audit and what to do with the results. You could solicit views on how the library can best communicate with different audiences. Another possibility is looking at policies such as fines, payment for lost books, use of cell phones, eating in the library, or other practices that have been in place without re-evaluation.
The longer the list you can make before starting, the better feel you will have for how to proceed. The list will also guide you in whom you want to serve on the advisory board. You might include the list when you present the idea for the board to your principal.
- What’s the Commitment? – You are asking busy people to volunteer their valuable time. How much? How often? There’s also your time investment as well. You can’t expect people to take on an extra responsibility if you aren’t doing the same. Will there be regularly scheduled meetings? Will they be after school? Evenings? Weekends? The decision will affect who can make the commitment. Those asked will need to know how often these meeting will occur and how long they will they last. Will there be follow-up tasks?
In addition to how much time will be involved, you also need to be clear about the location of any meetings. Are you going to use Zoom or a similar platform? Do you want to hold some meeting in person? If so, is the school a possibility or do you need another place? Being clear on this will help people say yes when you ask them.
- What’s the Relevance? – You identified the Advisory Board’s “what” in listing the roles and tasks it would undertake. You and Board members need to know the “why” as well. In other words, the Board needs a Mission Statement, and you should develop this together . It’s the ideal way to start your first meeting. It will bring the members together as a unit and increase their understanding of what they are here to do. Have sample mission statements to help. Here is one from a public radio station. Try to keep the Mission Statement under 50 words. Then you can easily include it in follow-up communications.
As time goes on, let members know about any changes or projects that have resulted from their work. They need to know they are having an effect on the program. At year’s end, thank them all for their contributions. Some members will be leaving. Encourage them to find their own replacements. When a new year and new members start, Robertson suggests reviewing the three questions. It will get the new people up to speed.
Beyond these questions from the business world, I would add one more. What do Board members need to know about the library? Even those who think they know a lot about libraries are probably not aware of the ALA Code of Ethics and the Library Bill of Rights. They may not know about the policies your school has in place and what your job really is. Use the first meeting to share this or send out information before the meeting and discuss the material during that meeting.
In addition to having the Board bring their perspectives so that you don’t overlook diverse members of the educational and larger community, creating an Advisory Board builds library advocates. When they learn about the library, becoming involved in its practices, and have a stake in its success, they become your supporters. As this school year wraps up, think about what it might take to start an Advisory Board for the fall and the benefits to you and your library.