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A vital responsibility of the board of trustees is developing library policies. Although this is a legal requirement, set forth in RCW 27.12.210, this also provides trustees, the director, and staff with the opportunity to:

  • Evaluate the library's strengths and weaknesses;
  • Reach consensus on the library's purposes and priorities;
  • Clarify and strengthen relationships within the library;
  • Communicate the library's needs and achievements to the community at large.

Good policies are developed and adopted through a deliberative, thoughtful process. Local needs and situations determine policy content, but policies also need to incorporate best library practices. Governing library boards have the authority to adopt policies but an advisory library board may need to submit theirs to their governing authority for approval. (For specifics on the level of authority for governing and advisory boards, see Library Trustees - Overview.) An essential part of this process requires the trustees to have a true dialog. Board members should make sure that communication runs both ways, not only talking to the diverse community served by the library, the library director, other governmental units, community stakeholders, and other libraries in the community, but listening to them and welcoming their input and concerns.


“…all state agencies and all local agencies. “State agency” includes every state office, department, division, bureau, board, commission, or other state agency. “Local agency” includes every county, city, town, municipal corporation, quasi-municipal corporation, or special purpose district, or any office, department, division, bureau, board, commission, or agency thereof, or other local public agency.” (RCW 42.17A.005 (2))
“…a commercial, proprietary, financial, economic, or monetary advantage, or the avoidance f a commercial, proprietary, financial, economic, or monetary disadvantage.” (RCW 42.17A.005(5))
A carefully designed, broadly stated, written guideline for decision-making that is formally adopted by the library board. It is the governing principle upon which the director and staff develop specific procedures and regulations for the operation of the library.
“Mission statement”
A brief statement that provides the nucleus for strategic and long-range plans, annual plans, and policies. United for Libraries offers guidance on writing mission statements in their Trustee Tip Sheet 3 - Mission Statements.
“Municipal officer” and “officer”
“shall each include all elected and appointed officers of a municipality, together with all deputies and assistants of such an officer, and all persons exercising or undertaking to exercise any of the powers or functions of a municipal officer.” RCW 42.23.020(2)
“shall include all counties, cities, towns, districts, and other municipal corporations and quasi municipal corporations organized under the laws of the state of Washington.” RCW 42.23.020(1)

Policy Dos and Don’ts

Policy Dos

Have a policy that is:

  • Written in language that is clear, simple, friendly, and jargon-free;
  • Physically, as well as intellectually, accessible to members of the community served by the library;
  • Mindful of public accountability, striving for transparency;
  • In alignment with the library’s mission statement;
  • Culturally sensitive, protecting the rights of staff as well as the diverse community served by the library, treating all persons fairly and consistently;
  • A clear guide for the director and staff as they proceed to implement the board’s decisions;
  • A policy, establishing overall direction for services and operations - not a procedure, which details how the policy will be implemented;
  • A framework that anticipates needs and problems;
  • In compliance with federal, state, and local laws (See Laws Affecting Libraries);
  • Consistent with other policies, avoiding contradictions;
  • Representative of current and best public library practices, including those listed in the ALA Policy Manual that are applicable to public libraries;
  • Specific regarding how complaints or suggestions may be made and describes what the review process entails;
  • Consistent and specific regarding the consequences for violating policies (e.g., suspensions or fines, etc.);
  • A tool that helps guide decision-making in sensitive situations, particularly in the area of intellectual freedom and rules of conduct.

Policy Don’ts

Do not create a policy that is:

  • A procedure, detailing the specifics of implementation;
  • Driven by deadlines—Tip: Instead of using a specific date, use words such as “periodic”;
  • Riddled with mandatory words such as “will” and “shall”—Don’t make promises you can’t keep!—Tip: use words such as “reasonable” instead;
  • Excessively detailed—less is more;
  • A knee-jerk reaction to a one-time event.

How to Develop a Library Policy

In the best of worlds, policy-making is proactive. Boards should try to anticipate areas of ambiguity where having policies in place in advance can avert hasty decision-making when emotions are running high.

The following steps will help in creating policies:

  1. Realize that a policy is needed
    • Has a customer service problem surfaced that could have been resolved with a policy?
    • Has the library director raised a concern with the board regarding an issue that needs clarification?
    • Have other libraries found it necessary to develop a new policy to deal with a particular issue?
    • Have national, regional, or statewide professional library associations recommended new policies for libraries?
  2. Gather the facts
    • Research policies of other libraries. There are many places to go where you can find examples of many different library policies covering a range of issues. Sample policies may be found at:
    • Make sure that the policy complies with best practices and professional standards;
    • Identify budget, staff, legal, and/or service impacts;
    • Describe options and how they might impact library operations;
    • Identify the long-term and short-term effect on the library and its customers;
    • Document how the policy supports the library’s vision and mission (e.g., adult literacy, community engagement, parenting and family skills, community health, etc.).
  3. Discuss the issue

    The impact of a proposed policy should be discussed in detail from many perspectives. How will it affect the entire community served by the library, library users of all ages, library staff, the library budget, and other resources? Policies can have far-reaching consequences. When discussing a proposed policy, consider whether it is:

    • Consistent with the library’s mission statement and long-range plans;
    • Consistent with other internal library policies;
    • Consistent with local, state, and federal laws (See Laws Affecting Libraries);
    • Necessary, practical, affordable, and fair to all affected;
    • Broad enough to cover the subject, but stated clearly so staff can implement policy consistently.

    Note: The board is ultimately responsible for assuring that federal and state laws are reflected in library policies and procedures and that the constitutional rights of individuals are protected. It is always important for the board to keep up-to-date concerning judicial interpretations of the laws before taking any policy action based on them. Make sure that your library attorney understands the constitutional status of public libraries and consult with the attorney whenever policy is being developed or reviewed. The following resources may be of further assistance:

  4. Draft the initial policy statement for board discussion
    • The library director may be asked to write the draft policy statement—Tip: When drafting a policy, try out the Pierce County Library System’s Policy Style template, which can help to make the draft clear and concise;
    • The board:
      • Evaluates the draft policy—Note: Be sure to submit the draft policy for review by legal counsel to ensure that policy is in compliance with all local, state, and federal laws;
      • Revises the proposed policy until it clearly reflects the position of the board;
      • Invites public comment. Expect heated debate on controversial issues!

    Note: Public comment on policies should be expected because all board meetings are open to the public. (See Board Meetings for further information about laws that apply to library board meetings.)

  5. Adopt the policy
    • Policies must be approved by a majority vote of the board of trustees at a legally constituted board meeting—Note: Policies are rarely adopted in a single meeting. The board needs time to consider public comment and staff and legal counsel need to review a policy before adoption. If the board is advisory, final approval may be required from the governing authority. (For more information, see Library Trustees.)
    • After approval, recommended practice is to:
      • Identify each policy by a unique number;
      • Include the date of adoption and/or revision;
      • Add the new or revised document to the policy manual;
      • Provide an index and be sure to update it as policies are added, eliminated, etc.;
      • Post key policies on the library’s Web site, including:
        • Eligibility for service;
        • Children’s access to materials;
        • Internet use;
        • Circulation of materials.

    Note: Library policies are public records and must be made available for review upon customer request as laid forth in RCW 42.56.070. (See Public Records for further information about laws that apply to public records.)

  6. Implement the policy
    • The library director implements the policy, assigning staff to develop operational procedures and action plans, if necessary;
    • Spread the word:
    • Put the new policy up on the library’s web site;
    • Train library staff and volunteers and provide them with copies;
    • Publicize any new policies that impact the use of the library and library services through activities such as:
      • Announcements;
      • Interviews with the media;
      • Use of social media;
      • Meetings with community stakeholders and others so they know and understand the rationale underlying the policy.

    Note: It is the responsibility of all trustees to support policies once the board adopts them. They must also support the staff because they will be the first to defend a policy after it is implemented and challenges occur.

  7. Evaluate the policy

    The library director and staff monitor the policy, reporting to the board on the effectiveness of the policy or unexpected results.

    Tip: Run policies past new board members to see if they make sense to them.

  8. Review the policy on a regular basis

    Because they may be called upon to defend or interpret policies to the public or to authorities, it is essential that trustees establish a method to review library policies on a regular basis to make sure that they are clear, legal, consistent, and defensible. Policies are the bedrock upon which sound library management decisions are made, but they definitely are not carved in stone. Even new policies need to be reviewed to assure that they are functioning as intended.

    When it might be time for a change:

    • Introduction of new technology into the library;
    • New laws - federal, state, or local;
    • Changes in legislation;
    • Change in community demographics;
    • The policy is no longer relevant;
    • New library services or programming are being implemented;
    • When staff need to use the word “policy” when discussing it with the library’s customers.

    Tips for policy review:

    • Set a review date for each new policy - today’s electronic calendars make this easy;
    • Review a policy every month as a regular board agenda item;
    • Create a policy review committee responsible for reviewing policies.

Types of Policies


Library Board By-laws

Rules under which the board will operate may include:

Day-to-day library operations

  • Budgeting and fiscal controls:
    • Purchasing procedures for goods and services;
    • Levels of purchasing authority;
    • Use of organizational credit card;
    • Procedures for travel reimbursement, etc.
  • Facilities:
  • Personnel:
    Although the board hires only the library director, it is responsible for approving:

    Note: In some libraries, these issues may be addressed in a union contract. In that case, the library director is responsible for compliance.

    The Personnel section provides additional guidance on personnel issues.

Services and Programs

Collection Development Policy

Although RCW 27.12.210 states that one responsibility of library trustees is the “purchase of library materials and supplies,” trustees are not personally responsible for selecting or purchasing library materials to add to the library collection. However, the board of trustees is responsible for adopting a collection development policy that will:

  • Reflect the mission and the purpose of the library, based on an understanding of the community;
  • Provide guidance to staff when dealing with library customers.

The library’s mission should have already answered the following questions:

  • What is the library’s purpose?
  • Who is the library meant to serve?
  • What are the needs of that community?—Note: In the case of a library system, the needs of the communities served by each branch must be considered.
  • What is the best way to meet those needs?

Perhaps S.R. (Shiyali Ramamrita) Ranganathan said it best in his classic work, The Five Laws of Library Science:

  1. Books are for use;
  2. Every person his or her book;
  3. Every book its reader;
  4. Save the time of the reader;
  5. A library is a growing organism.

These laws are timeless and can be applied to all libraries and to all users. Some thoughts on the relevance of the laws to the digital world may be found in “Ranganathan Online,” which appeared in the April 1, 2005 issue of Library Journal. See also the Wikipedia article, “Five laws of library science.”

Benefits of a Written Collection Development Policy

The benefits of a written collection development policy are many including:

  • Clarifying to the entire community of potential users what they can, or cannot, expect the library to purchase and maintain in the collection;
  • Responding to actual community needs because it incorporates the information and decisions that resulted from long-range or strategic planning;
  • Serving as a primary document in defending against potential censorship. It displays the research, planning, and impartial judgment applied to selecting materials;
  • Guiding staff so they can continually focus on identified priorities. It moves the selection process away from individual preferences or bias. It identifies who is responsible for selection and how requests from the public will be handled;
  • Balancing the selection process by setting criteria or standards for selection that result in quality choices;
  • Providing for continuity throughout staff and/or board changes in personnel;
  • Serving as the framework for budget allocations and offers accountability in the use of funds;
  • Functioning as an assessment tool for determining how well the library is meeting its goals in serving the community.

Ingredients of a collection development policy

  • Mission and purpose of the library;
  • Collection development philosophy:
  • Selection:
    • Team or staff positions responsible for selection;
    • Criteria for selection:
      • Relevance to interests/needs of the community;
      • Level of demand by the community (e.g., need for multiple copies of a title);
      • Relationship to the existing collection;
      • Reviews;
      • Suitability for intended audience;
      • Format;
      • Date of publication;
      • Cost.
    • Process for considering public requests for additions to the collection;
  • Challenges to items in the collection:

    Collection development policies also need to include a section relating to customer requests for the library to “reconsider” library materials. The procedure for handling these complaints should describe every step, from the initial response to the complainant through the highest appeal. The policy needs to emphasize that staff will provide the initial review and response to requests for reconsideration, and that if a challenge is sent directly to the board, the board will forward the item to staff for the initial response.

    Many libraries adopt a “Request for Reconsideration” form that must be completed in order to provide the library with the information needed to thoughtfully consider a challenge. The form should include a description of the reconsideration process and make clear that the completed form must be submitted for the library to proceed with a reconsideration request.

    Resources to help libraries to deal with challenged materials include:

  • Evaluation:

    The collection should be evaluated on a regular basis, with an eye to discarding outdated, rarely used, or dog-eared titles. The review process may uncover items of historical and/or monetary value that should be considered as candidates for preservation and/or digitization. Additional information may be found in Evaluating Library Collections from ALA’s Interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights.

  • Weeding collections:

    The disposal of surplus and obsolete library materials can be a sensitive and complex issue in a community, sometimes creating a public relations nightmare. To avoid misunderstandings, be sure to have guidelines in place for handling discarded library materials. The collection development policy should include the rationale and process for weeding, preservation, and/or replacement of materials as appropriate. RCW 39.33.070 provides for the disposal or obsolete or surplus reading materials by school districts and libraries. A board of trustees may wish to clarify the local approach to this issue and work with local government officials, especially the auditor, to reach an agreement on how the library will handle disposal of materials.

  • Gifts and donations:

    The library should have a policy on gifts/donated materials, including:

    • Criteria used to determine if the item(s) will be added to the collection;
    • Whether or not gifts will be accepted if there are any accompanying restrictions or directions for the use of the materials.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do operational policies and procedures require board approval?
No. Operational documents do not require board approval because they are based on board-approved policy statements.
May public libraries allow the display of campaign materials on their premises?
As stated in PDC Interpretation 91-03 from the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC):
It is a normal and regular function of a public library to obtain and provide public access to campaign brochures, fact sheets, voters and candidates pamphlets and similar documents which provide information regarding election campaigns.

Any library which chooses to display campaign material must provide equal opportunity to both proponents and opponents of any ballot measure or to all candidates. Preferential treatment may not be provided to one side over another or to one candidate or political group.

If supporters of one side of an issue or a candidate ask that material be displayed, library employees must make a good faith effort to obtain material from opposing or competing groups and make those materials available in library facilities.

There is no obligation on the part of libraries to serve as a distribution point for campaign materials.

May public libraries allow their meeting rooms to be used for political activities?
Although RCW 42.17A.555 prohibits the use of public facilities to support or oppose a ballot measure or an election campaign, it also provides for exceptions including those “[a]ctivities which are part of the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”

Further clarification is provided by WAC 390-05-271, which states that:

RCW 42.17A.555 does not prevent a public office or agency from (a) making facilities available on a nondiscriminatory, equal access basis for political uses or (b) making an objective and fair presentation of facts relevant to a ballot proposition, if such action is part of the normal and regular conduct of the office or agency.”

Additional information may be found in the following sources:

Is there a process outlined in state law to determine if a book is obscene?

In response to this question, a legal consultant from MRSC stated:

There is nothing in the state obscenity laws that determines the process for declaring library materials obscene.  However, there is a legal process that can be used to determine if material is erotic. “Erotic material" means printed material, photographs, pictures, motion pictures, sound recordings, and other material the dominant theme of which taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest of minors in sex; which is patently offensive because it affronts contemporary community standards relating to the description or representation of sexual matters or sado-masochistic abuse; and is utterly without redeeming social value. (See RCW 9.68.050).

"Erotic material" — Determination by court — Labeling — Penalties. (RCW 9.68.060)

  1. When it appears that material which may be deemed erotic is being sold, distributed, or exhibited in this state, the prosecuting attorney of the county in which the sale, distribution, or exhibition is taking place may apply to the superior court for a hearing to determine the character of the material with respect to whether it is erotic material.
  2. Notice of the hearing shall immediately be served upon the dealer, distributor, or exhibitor selling or otherwise distributing or exhibiting the alleged erotic material. The superior court shall hold a hearing not later than five days from the service of notice to determine whether the subject matter is erotic material within the meaning of RCW 9.68.050.
  3. If the superior court rules that the subject material is erotic material, then, following such adjudication:
    1. If the subject material is written or printed, or is a sound recording, the court shall issue an order requiring that an "adults only" label be placed on the publication or sound recording, if such publication or sound recording is going to continue to be distributed. Whenever the superior court orders a publication or sound recording to have an "adults only" label placed thereon, such label shall be impressed on the front cover of all copies of such erotic publication or sound recording sold or otherwise distributed in the state of Washington. Such labels shall be in forty-eight point bold face type located in a conspicuous place on the front cover of the publication or sound recording. All dealers and distributors are hereby prohibited from displaying erotic publications or sound recordings in their store windows, on outside newsstands on public thoroughfares, or in any other manner so as to make an erotic publication or the contents of an erotic sound recording readily accessible to minors.
    2. If the subject material is a motion picture, the court shall issue an order requiring that such motion picture shall be labeled "adults only". The exhibitor shall prominently display a sign saying "adults only" at the place of exhibition, and any advertising of the motion picture shall contain a statement that it is for adults only. Such exhibitor shall also display a sign at the place where admission tickets are sold stating that it is unlawful for minors to misrepresent their age.
  4. Failure to comply with a court order issued under the provisions of this section shall subject the dealer, distributor, or exhibitor to contempt proceedings.
  5. Any person who, after the court determines material to be erotic, sells, distributes, or exhibits the erotic material to a minor shall be guilty of violating RCW 9.68.050 through 9.68.120, such violation to carry the following penalties:
    1. For the first offense a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined not more than five hundred dollars, or imprisoned in the county jail not more than six months;
    2. For the second offense a gross misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined not more than one thousand dollars, or imprisoned for up to three hundred sixty-four days;
    3. For all subsequent offenses a class B felony and upon conviction shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars, or imprisoned not less than one year.

Note, however, that the “erotic materials” statutes exclude public libraries from prosecution:

Exceptions to RCW 9.68.050 through 9.68.120. (RCW 9.68.100)

Nothing in RCW 9.68.050 through 9.68.120 shall apply to the circulation of any such material by any recognized historical society or museum, the state law library, any county law library, the state library, the public library, any library of any college or university, or to any archive or library under the supervision and control of the state, county, municipality, or other political subdivision.

That leaves the question of how someone would challenge material in a library.  Generally, they first would take the matter to the library board.  After that there would be a challenge in county superior court.  However, since banning books raises First Amendment issues, it is possible that the challenging party could attempt to bring in action in federal district court.  Both state and federal courts may have jurisdiction. 

From my review of cases, most of the challenges to books are for school libraries.  The big topic now for public libraries is internet access to allegedly-obscene materials.

What process must a city or town use to accept a donation?

MRSC posts the following response:

“Every city and town in the state has the authority to accept donations. There is no specific process set out in state law, and a public hearing is not required before the donation can be accepted.

RCW 35.21.100 provides:

Every city and town by ordinance may accept any money or property donated, devised, or bequeathed to it and carry out the terms of the donation, devise, or bequest, if within the powers granted by law. If no terms or conditions are attached to the donation, devise, or bequest, the city or town may expend or use it for any municipal purpose.

Although this language can reasonably be interpreted to mean that a city must pass an ordinance to accept each and every donation it receives, many cities interpret it to mean that the city must establish by ordinance a procedure for accepting donations. Some cities authorize a particular city official, such as a clerk-treasurer or city manager/administrator, to accept donations on behalf of the city. Others provide that the council will do so, and, unless specified, that could be done by motion or resolution.

In the absence of a delegation of authority to accept donations, we recommend, at a minimum, that the city council pass a motion or resolution accepting the donation.”

May a public library charge user fees for the services provided by the library?

According to AG Opinion AGO 2005 No. 5, “Existing statutory law prohibits public libraries from charging fees for traditional library services, such as borrowing books or reviewing materials at the library. Libraries may charge fees for services which are beyond the traditional purposes of a library and are provided as a convenience for the public.”

This Opinion reaffirms AGO 1992 No. 31, which notes that the library can charge a fee to nonresidents.

Does a public library operated by a city organized under the Optional Municipal Code (RCW 35A) have authority to charge fines for overdue books and other library materials?

According to AG Opinion AGO 2005 No. 5, “[p]ublic libraries have authority to impose and collect fines for keeping library materials beyond their due date or otherwise abusing the right of free access to the library.”

Can a library charge user fees for services provided to non-residents?
MRSC posts the following response:
Reviewed: 08/11

Yes. AGO 1992 No. 31 reviews this issue, noting that basic library services must be provided free of charge to residents of the political jurisdiction which supports the library through taxation. The corollary is that public libraries can charge user fees to those who do not live within the jurisdiction which provides the tax revenues to pay for the library. In fact, if a public library provides services to non-residents without charging a fee, an argument can be made that the library is violating the "gift clause" of the state constitution [ Article 8, section 7 ] . Libraries can charge for ancillary services such as copying machines, phones, fax machines, etc. - that issue is also covered in the AGO.

What options are available for patrons who do not wish to have their addresses disclosed (such as for library card access) due to being a victim of domestic violence?

If a patron registering for a card does not want to give us their address on the grounds that they are victims of domestic violence, you may refer them to the Address Confidentiality Program for Victims of Domestic Violence in the State of Washington.

Under the auspices of the Office of the Secretary of State in Olympia, the ACP can help keep such a person's home, work, or school address secret (to satisfy the patron's desires) and give them a substitute mailing address and forward first-class mail from that address (to satisfy the library's needs).

  1. Refer the patron to the ACP (if they wish to take advantage of this program):
    Washington State Address Confidentiality Program
    PO Box 257
    Olympia, WA 98507-0069
  2. Issue a library card when the patron presents the laminated ACP card with the substitute address.
May a damaged book belonging to a public library be donated to a patron after that patron has paid for the book’s replacement?

An informal AGO Opinion issued 1/26/1967, signed by Assistant Attorney General Arthur W. Verharen and addressed to Maryan E. Reynolds, states:

"While a library board's ability to sell real property is questionable, a board does possess the power to transfer title to personal property… There is no legal impediment preventing a library from giving a damaged book to a library patron after the patron has paid for the book's replacement especially in view of the broad powers vested in a library board by RCW 27.12.210."
Is a County Prosecuting Attorney either required or authorized to provide legal advice and representation to a rural library district or a regional library composed of a rural library district and a city library?

An informal AGO Opinion issued 11/12/1976, signed by Deputy Attorney General Philip H. Austin and addressed to Jeffrey C. Sullivan, states:

“Your question is answered in the negative… This office [has] characterized a rural county library district as an independent political subdivision rather than, merely, a county agency… We concluded that the prosecuting attorney was required to provide legal representation [to] county agencies rather than independent municipal corporations… Those duties and functions do not include that of providing legal counsel and representation to a library district.”
Do state agencies have the authority to spend public funds in order to lobby on their own behalf?

An informal AGO Opinion issued 11/19/1979, signed by Assistant Attorney General Robert E. Mack and addressed to Gary Strong, states:

"RCW 42.17.190 appears to authorize state agencies, which are not otherwise expressly authorized by law to do so, to expend public funds for lobbying activities."

RCW 42.17.190 was recodified by Wash. Sess. Laws 2010 c 204 § 808 as RCW 42.17A.635. RCW 42.17A.635 provides more detail:

“Any agency, not otherwise expressly authorized by law, may expend public funds for lobbying, but such lobbying activity shall be limited to (a) providing information or communicating on matters pertaining to official agency business to any elected official or officer or employee of any agency or (b) advocating the official position or interests of the agency to any elected official or officer or employee of any agency. Public funds may not be expended as a direct or indirect gift or campaign contribution to any elected official or officer or employee of any agency.”


The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Always consult legal counsel for specific concerns.

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