Governance HUB

Resources, training, and information for members of Ontario's public library boards


These 10 statements constitute an overview of the most important aspects of library board governance in the province of Ontario. Each of the statements represents an important governance concept or an environmental factor that is crucial for board members to understand.  Collectively, the statements are important because they contribute to effective library boards and successful libraries.

For more on organizing board orientation, please visit the Board Orientation and Ongoing Development Section of Year 1: Board Roles and Responsibilities in the Governance HUB.

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Public library service is free in the Province of Ontario.

The Public Libraries Act (PLA) and Regulation 976 specify that most library services must be offered to residents free of charge. This requirement makes the library different from other community services which are often expected to generate revenue from user fees. Access to library service must remain free because universal access to information is a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of democracy.
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Libraries have long promoted and fought for freedom of expression, the right to access information, and intellectual freedom. As core values in democratic societies, public libraries in Canada and throughout much of the World are overwhelming free to access. In Ontario, these are protected by the Public Libraries Act. Unlike other municipal services such as programming offered by the recreation department which charges fees, libraries are prohibited to charge fees to reserve and borrow circulating materials and use of reference and information services (PLA, s. 23 (1)(2)). Libraries are permitted to generate revenue from fines, room rentals, and non-residence fees. (PLA, s. 23 (3)).

The library board is a governing board that gets its authority from the Public Libraries Act.

Once appointed by Council, the board is a separate, independent corporation with the legal duty to provide “a comprehensive and efficient public library service that reflects the community’s unique needs” (PLA, 20a)
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The PLA empowers municipal councils to establish public library boards and appoint members. Library board members are appointed within 60 days of a new council term and when vacancies arise. Public Library Boards in Ontario are independent corporations that are entrusted with legal responsibility for the library. (PLA, s.3(3)). Library Boards in Ontario are governing boards. Boards are mandated by the PLA to appoint a chief executive officer to run the day-to-day operations of the library.

The library board exercises its authority by making informed decisions that focus on matters of governance.

Governance includes the following areas of responsibility:
a. Strategy & oversight
b. CEO support and oversight
c. Financial stewardship & accountability
d. Policy framework
e. Advocacy based on mission and community impact
f. Employer obligations
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The library board acts as one entity through established rules set out in the PLA and parliamentary conventions. In order to direct staff and adopt policies, the library board must adopt resolutions. The following areas of responsibility represent common governance issues encountered by public library boards:

  1. Strategy & Oversight:
    • A key role of the board is defining the library’s purpose and direction by defining and articulating the library’s mission and values. Part of the board’s responsibility for planning is to steer the library to achieve specific end results. To define community needs, the board must analyze and assess the library environment.
    • The board works collaboratively with senior management to set the library’s strategic direction. The Strategic Planning process is a process for making informed decisions that shape and guide the essence of what an organization is, what it does for whom, and what it could and should be and do for whom, in the future. Strategic Planning is a collective and big picture effort between the Library Board and staff that clarifies the library's future direction and ensure day-to-day activities serve strategic and long-term goals.
    • As part of the board’s oversight responsibilities, many Boards commit to a self-evaluation process of their work.
  2. CEO support and oversight:
  3. Financial stewardship & accountability:
    • Financial oversight is a major aspect of the board’s role in ensuring accountability. The board will have to know how its assets are protected and that resources are being used wisely. It is also necessary to know in advance what data the board needs to prove accountability.
    • Budget estimates: The board must submit budget estimates and an audited financial statement to council each year.
    • Property: The board must seek council approval to acquire and dispose of real property and to raise funds through debentures (PLA, section 19 and section 25).
    • Audit: It is a condition of PLA Regulation 9761(b) that recipients of library funding under PLA section 30 supply the audited financial statements and information to the Minister that are required.
  4. Policy framework
    • Setting policy is important board work because it is through discussing policy that the board expresses its philosophy and priorities.
    • Some boards have found it useful to form policy committees to move policy work forward in an efficient manner.
    • SOLS maintains several sample policies available for use by public libraries.
  5. Advocacy based on mission and community impact
  6. Employer obligations

The library board is the employer of library staff. This responsibility is defined in Section 15 (1) of the PLA: “A board may appoint and remove such employees as it considers necessary, determine the terms of their employment, fix their remuneration and prescribe their duties.” The major personnel responsibility of the library board is the appointment a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) as outlined in Section 15(2) of the PLA.


The library board is required by legislation to appoint a chief executive officer (CEO) to oversee library operations.

Once appointed by the Board, the CEO manages and controls library operations, freeing the library board to focus on governance. This is an important distinction for everyone to understand as it prevents conflicts and other problems from occurring.
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The role of public library boards in Ontario is to provide leadership and strategy or, in other words, concentrate on the “big picture”. Boards do not direct operations or direct implementation of strategy endorsed by the board. These are roles for management and staff. The board’s role is to ensure the long-term success of the library. Read more in Cut to the Chase.


Board authority belongs to the board as a whole; individual board members have no authority.

The board exercises its authority through the decisions it makes, and records as motions, in the context of a legally constituted board meeting. Outside of board meetings, you as a board member have no individual authority.
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The library board expresses its authority, as a whole, through duly constituted resolutions adopted at board meetings. Individual board members do not have the authority to direct staff members regarding library operations. The role of the board is to provide strategic leadership and oversight. 

Learn more about Board Meetings.


Each board member has a legal obligation to act honestly, in good faith, and in the best interests of the library.

Because the PLA establishes the library board as a corporation, it means board members have a "fiduciary" duty to act in the best interests of the corporation. There is a duty of care and of loyalty, and an obligation to act honestly and in good faith. This includes all board members, whether appointed as a citizen representative or a council representative.
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Citizen appointees and Council appointees to the public library board have the same fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the library.

Some boards have outlined duty of diligence, duty of loyalty, and duty of care for board members in governance policies. SOLS provides a sample policy regarding these duties (GOV-01, Purpose and Duties of the Board). Public library board members must adhere to the rules and duties set out in the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.


Library board meetings must be open to the public with advance notice given.

The board is required to hold regular meetings once a month for at least 10 months of the year. Board meetings must be open to the public unless a closed meeting is warranted, as prescribed in Section 16.1 (4) of the Public Libraries Act.
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Library board meetings are open to the public and reasonable efforts should be made to inform the public of the time of location of the regularly scheduled meetings. Minutes of board meetings are available to the public. As a best practice, recent minutes should be accessible through the library’s website.

A meeting or part of a meeting may be closed to the public if the subject matter being considered is, 

(a) the security of the property of the board;

(b) personal matters about an identifiable individual;

(c) a proposed or pending acquisition or disposition of land by the board;

(d) labour relations or employee negotiations;

(e) litigation or potential litigation, including matters before administrative tribunals, affecting the board;

(f) advice that is subject to solicitor-client privilege, including communications necessary for that purpose;

(g) a matter in respect of which a board or committee of a board may hold a closed meeting under another Act.        PLA, s. 16.1

The reasons for closed meetings listed in the Municipal Act do not apply to public library board meetings. Only the reasons listed above in the PLA are reasons that permit public library boards to meet in-camera. The board should always operate with the principle of transparency in mind. Through its decision-making processes, the board represents the interests of the community.

Might it be worthwhile to say something along the lines of 'most self-generated revenue libraries comes from fines, room rentals and non-residence fees?


Good governance happens when the CEO and library board trust each other, respect each other, and work together.

The library board relies on the support and expertise of the CEO to be successful; and the CEO relies on the support and guidance of the library board to be successful.
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The leadership of the library is shared between the library board and the CEO. Whenever there is SHARED leadership, the need for a collaborative relationship between the leaders is paramount.

A healthy, trusting, collaborative relationship between the board and the CEO includes the courage to hold each other accountable and have difficult conversations when necessary. By acting from a place of caring (caring about the library and about each other) and candor, board members and CEOs can talk about each other's performance with a view towards continuous improvement and learning. This level of honesty and commitment to multiple perspectives also lays the groundwork for difficult conversations related to big decisions.

While much has been written about the governing board's responsibility to oversee the CEO's performance, undoubtedly an important aspect of governance, there also needs to be attention given to supporting the CEO. It is the board's responsibility to ensure that the CEO has the supports and the resources he or she needs to be successful, because his or her success, is connected to the board's success, and the library's success.

Articles and additional resources about Board-CEO relationship.


Good governance happens in board meetings that are designed to support informed decision-making.

The board chair and CEO work together to create agendas that are engaging and forward thinking while also meeting the board’s needs for accountability and wise stewardship. It’s a process that takes time, but the best boards eventually find a collaborative style that balances camaraderie with candor and challenging conversations.
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Decision making in matters of governance and strategic importance belongs to the library board. The role of the CEO is to facilitate good decision making by ensuring the board has access to information that allows them to consider issues from multiple perspectives, have an understanding of any risk involved, likely consequences, and, ultimately, be reasonably confident in comparing options and making a decision.

Board members should arrive prepared for meetings. This includes completing any background reading and thinking about the items on the meeting agenda.

Making informed decisions requires you as a board member to be a good listener and be open to having your mind changed. Ask questions, even if they seem naïve. The vast majority of library board members are new to library oversight. Continuous learning is an important value to remember as you proceed through your term on the library board.


The municipality is the library’s primary funder and a strategic ally.

While the library board is an independent corporation, it does get the majority of its funding from municipal tax dollars. Sustaining a collaborative mindset and a strong working relationship between the library and the municipality is, therefore, important work. Council representatives on the library board support this work by facilitating ongoing communication and opportunities for collaboration. It is important that everyone understands that elected officials appointed to the library board have the same responsibilities and obligations as any other member of the board.
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Municipal taxpayers are the primary source of operating funds for public libraries in Ontario.  Provincial grants do not make up a large portion of most boards’ revenue. The Public Libraries Act gives the municipality absolute discretion over the amount of funds it provides. In effect, Council may control the library's budget to the degree that it chooses.

This means that the library's relationship to the municipality as the primary funder is of paramount importance and needs to be cultivated on a continuous basis. This work belongs to the Board and the CEO. The approach to building a strong working relationship should be coordinated, inclusive of municipal councillors and staff, strategic and collaborative. The library must build its own credibility and value in the municipal environment to such an extent that municipal leaders want to fund the library. 

Councillors appointed to the library board are key to maintaining a two-way flow of communication, and a good working relationship between the library and the municipality. As a member of the library board, a municipal councillor has the same rights and responsibilities as any other member of the board. In library board meetings, a councillor is obligated to vote as a member of the library board, not as a member of Council. 

The work of cultivating a strong working relationship takes time, relying on trust and credibility, as well as opportunities to achieve something by collaborating. The library/municipal relationship will be an important focus in the Governance HUB’s Year 2 of the board's life cycle: Community & Municipal Relations.


For more information, please contact the Consulting Team at SOLS or the Skills Development Team at OLS—North.

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