Signs Your Library Policies Need Revision (And What to Do About It)

Amie Pilla, CEO, Berthoud Community Library
Amie Pilla, CEO, Berthoud Community Library District

This is a guest post contributed by Amie Pilla, Library CEO of the Berthoud Community Library District.

When I started at the Berthoud Library in 2016, I immediately made fast friends with each of my board members by insisting that all of our policies be revised.  We had a great summer together!  Happily, now all of our policies are reviewed– a few each year– on a rotating basis.  If you’re unsure about whether or not your policies need revision, or unsure what to do with them if they are in need, read on.

Let’s talk first about signs that mean you might need to write or revise a library policy.

  1. Laws have changed. The two categories I see change the most are HR/employment laws and what I call “how to behave in public” laws—think gun control, anti-discrimination, or unattended youth laws. Of course, in order to know that the laws have changed someone in your library needs to pay attention to legal developments. That’s not as hard as it sounds, especially when you have CLiC, CAL, the State Library, and ALA to help with updates.
  2. It’s been too long. How long is too long? You will need to determine your library’s tolerance for yourselves. The first time we did a policy review here in Berthoud, it had been 8 years since most policies had been reviewed. We had a delightful time revising all 20 of our policies in one summer, and decided we never wanted to have to do that again. Now we review 6 or 7 policies during the course of a year, with all of them on a regular 3-year rotation. This keeps us up-to-date but not overwhelmed.
  3. The policy doesn’t match staff behavior. If your policy says, “if x happens then we do y,” but when x happens you actually do z, something needs to change. For example, you may have a policy that says you will attempt to contact parents and then call the police anytime a child 10 or under is left alone in the library. But if an 8-year-old is content to quietly work at a computer for 2 hours without an appearance from mom or dad, and staff are content to leave that quiet 8-year-old alone without calling parents, then you have a policy/staff behavior mismatch.
  4. Someone asks, “What is your policy on ___?” and you don’t know the answer. Or you do know the answer but have no clue how to summarize it. There is a caveat with this one: once-in-a-lifetime occurrences don’t need policies. If someone asks about your policy on bringing acrobatic monkeys to visit storytime in the small meeting room on the 3rd Wednesday of any month that ends in –ary, don’t write an acrobatic monkey policy. Think for a moment, refer that person to your policy on youth programming or meeting room use or animals in the library, and go on with your day.
  5. You have procedures mixed into your policies. Sometimes this is a good thing, like outlining the procedure by which invoices get paid in a financial policy. More often, it’s best if procedures and policies are separate. For example, we had stated in our Emergency Policy that staff were to meet up at the Fire District’s picnic table after clearing the building in the event of a fire. What happened? Yep, the Fire District got rid of the picnic table, and I couldn’t designate a new meeting place without asking the board to change the policy. If it’s a procedure that library staff should be able to change by themselves, it needs to be out of the policy.
  6. You are uncomfortable telling people what the policy is. We’re not talking about the discomfort that comes from a policy being new, or from a policy with which you simply don’t agree. We’re talking about the discomfort that comes when you know your policy is inconsistent or silly or unenforceable or (hopefully not) illegal, and you know that the person you’re speaking with will call you out on it. That’s an unfair situation for everyone, so review that policy.

If you know which policies need to be written or revised, then what? Here are a few things to aim for when writing or revising.

  • Clear and concise wording. We don’t create policies to confuse people, but to help them. Consider reading level and word choice carefully as you work. Staff should be able to sum up the policy quickly and have the fully policy readily accessible. All this does two things: enables staff to deescalate tense situations quickly, and prevents bias from creeping into staff and board decisions.
  • Attorneys approve. It’s always best when your policies are legal. Can’t afford an attorney? Plenty of libraries in this state can, so call up their leadership teams and ask if you can steal their wording. I have yet to be told no when I’ve asked.
  • Keep the words positive whenever possible. No one likes being told they can’t do something, so don’t tempt anyone to defy you. Positive words create a more welcoming environment by assuming good behaviors instead of poor ones.
  • Ensure policies match staff behavior. Sometimes the policy needs to change. Sometimes the behavior does. Figure it out and stick to it—everyone will be happier when the inconsistencies are eliminated.
  • Explain the reason for the policy in the policy itself. Think about why you bothered to create the policy in the first place, then save everybody some time by embedding the reason right in the policy. For example, “To ensure fiscal responsibility, transparency, and proper accounting practices…” in your financial policy, or “So everyone can experience a safe and welcoming environment, visitors to the library are expected to…” in your behavior policy.

Remember that the best policies are living documents that actively govern the library, not statements that get shoved into a drawer and ignored until the next round of revision. While policies need to work for all your library’s constituents—board, staff, library users, local governments, and more—that doesn’t mean that the process of writing or revising quality policies is beyond your reach. Enjoy the process!

Additional Resources

Crystal Schimpf