Donna Macdonald is halfway through her second term as President of the British Columbia Library Trustees Association (BCLTA) and has also enjoyed a remarkable career as a community leader. Last May, her memoir about serving 19 years as a city councillor in Nelson, BC, titled Surviving City Hall, was published by Nightwood Editions. Donna kindly took the time to speak to Perspectives about her role in BCLTA and her life in city governance.
Tim McMillan: Many public library workers in the province are unaware of the role Trustees play in steering their organizations. Allowing for different governance models in different jurisdictions, can you speak to the contribution of Trustees in general to library operations?
Donna Macdonald: Library trustees are the governors of one of our communities’ most valuable assets: our public libraries. The Library Act specifies two required duties for boards of trustees. They must appoint a chief librarian and they must prepare financial budgets and reports. Trustees also set directions and priorities for their libraries, hopefully in consultation with library staff and the community. Ideally, the board then provides gentle oversight as those directions are implemented by staff. And beyond that, trustees raise funds, paint shelves, champion their library in the community, develop policies, provide advice to the chief librarian, and much more (depending on their structure, needs, and energy levels). Trustees also help to bring the voices of the community to the table. The leadership of trustees is key to the sustainability and success of our libraries.
Tim McMillan: In your book you speak of the Three Bears of Governance. This notion struck me as applicable to governing in political and organizational bodies. From your long involvement in Nelson city politics, do you see the Three Bears as a model that is applicable in the library context?
Donna Macdonald: I used the Three Bears analogy to describe the situation of local governments (which aren’t real levels of government under the Canadian Constitution). I call them the baby bears, created and controlled to a great extent by provincial governments (the mama bears). Libraries are somewhat similar–governed by a provincial act, often created by local government, and reliant on funding support from both. So there is a sense of dependency, and also a desire to be accountable. I see public libraries earning greater respect from all funders and stakeholders as they become better at demonstrating how they add value to individuals, communities, and the province.
Tim McMillan: Given the importance of library trustees to public library governance, what are the major issues you anticipate for the BCLTA during your term?
Donna Macdonald: I’ve been on the BCLTA board for about four years, and I’m halfway through my second term as president. The issues haven’t changed much over those years. As a member-driven association, we focus on advocacy and on supporting trustees. Funding is always an issue; we (BCLTA and the other provincial library organizations) recently met with [Minister of Education Mike Bernier] and said that while we appreciate the stable library funding over the past eight years, inflation is eating away at the money provided. At the minimum, we advocated for an annual inflationary increase. And we advocated for a provincial broadband strategy, to ensure universal connectivity is available, especially for more rural libraries and communities. In terms of how BCLTA supports trustees, we’re just completing a project on trustee learning and development, looking beyond the traditional TOP training. We want our trustees to have ongoing opportunities to learn and grow.
Tim McMillan: Politics and government has traditionally been seen as a boy’s club with a noticeable disparity in female representation despite some current examples at the provincial level in Canada. At the same time libraries have traditionally been a female dominated profession. From your experience in Nelson, do you see civic engagement through leadership roles in libraries as a possible stepping stone for women looking to get involved in local politics?
Donna Macdonald: Absolutely! Having experience on community boards and committees, like public libraries, helps to build women’s confidence and knowledge. Contemplating politics can be scary, I know. Being a trustee and having the experience of evaluating information, exchanging opinions, and making decisions (sometimes tough ones) grows a sense of competence. BCLTA absolutely wants to support our trustees to be and be recognized as community leaders. Having them move into a political arena, with new skills and self-confidence, would be a sign of success!
Tim McMillan: What types of strategies would you recommend to small and medium sized public library systems in British Columbia when it comes to selling their relevance to city councils?
Donna Macdonald: BCLTA has a Local Advocacy Toolkit on its website, which provides lots of ideas about how to ensure local government officials, and other community leaders, understand the importance of their libraries. It’s all about building relationships; for example, a buddy system where trustees meet one-on-one with their councillors on a regular basis, armed with great stories from their library. Providing written reports and/or meeting minutes to Council is helpful, but it’s the personal connection that conveys the excitement (or challenges) of the library. Support needs to be built throughout the year, not just at budget time! Having the chief librarian as part of the city management team can be very effective too; having informed and supportive senior staff is important (they often have considerable influence on elected folks).
Tim McMillan: Finally, and forgive the obvious question, what was the last great book you read?
Donna Macdonald: I don’t often finish a book, and then turn to page one immediately for a re-read. But an exception for me was Stephen Pressfield’s book The War of Art. It’s a small book, full of memorable advice about how to overcome Resistance – his name for the cunning force within us that persuades us it’s more important to mow the lawn than work on our book or go for our marathon training run. This isn’t the usual book on overcoming obstacles; it’s wide-ranging from Xenophon to William Blake, from Tiger Woods to the Muse, and far more. His writing is fascinating, pithy and humorous, and I couldn’t put it down (twice!).
Tim McMillan is an Assistant Manager with the Vancouver Public Library and the Co-Editor of Perspectives.