Public Library District Legislation 

The state with the most districts is probably Illinois where they have special districts for many types of services.   In New York every district is a special charter and the public has an annual referendum on funding.  Michigan also provides a charter on a case by case basis, but the form is more defined by statute than is the case for New York.  Six major issues that are usually encountered usually are:

  1. the definition of the territory involved,
  2. methods for alteration of territory,
  3. the method of governance- whether elected or appointed,
  4. the method of setting budgets and tax rates,
  5. procedures for securing bonds, letting contracts and so forth,
  6. the relationships of the district library board to nearby libraries, other library districts, and area counties and municipalities.

Needed Elements in a Model District Library Law

In 1993, Lee Brawner’s Library Journal article “The People’s Choice” called for the development of a model law on library districts for the 2/3 of U.S. states that have no laws on the books.   Much professional debate was sparked by the article “Are Wider Units Wiser?”  by Thomas J. Hennen Jr. appeared in the June/July 2002 issue of American Libraries, the official publication of the American Library Association. ALA has still not addressed the issue.  It is time that it did.

  1. The requirement of a clear and written plan of service for the proposed district.
  2. A tax, millage, or fee that is “annually recurring,” and separate from that of other government entities, with provision for repeal as necessary.
  3. Provisions for a referendum to establish the library district and authorize funding by action of elected officials or by a petition process.
  4. A tax or rate cap that provides both room for long-range library planning and public accountability. Include provisions for both operating and capital funding.
  5. A clear job description for the district library authority. Specification of appointment process or election for library board.
  6. Options for consolidated as opposed to federated type districts.
  7. Guidelines for the orderly transition of assets, staff and operations from existing library or libraries to the new district.
  8. Depending on the state, clarification may be necessary regarding ability of a district to overlap existing municipal boundaries.
  9. Depending on the state, procedures for expansion or contraction of district boundaries by annexation and voter referendum.

Special Library District Legislation exists in the following states:

  •  AL, AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, ID, IL, KS, KY, LA, MI, MT, NV, NY, OR, TX, VT, WA

Information by state for the following:

  • California: Although most California public libraries are organized as departments of general city or county government, a small number are organized as single-purpose districts. Those libraries are governed by a Board of Trustees elected for that specific purpose.  County Libraries organized under the County Free Library Law have a property tax rate proration, and likely other special-purpose tax-rate entities are sometimes considered as “special districts” for revenue purposes.  There are presently 7 different possible legal structures for California libraries; city, county, joint powers, and 4 types of independent special districts.  Note that the table below includes only administrative service units not all branch libraries.  The information in the table below for type and description is from the California State Library.  The number of libraries and population served is from the Institute for Museums and Library Services.  Data are for Fiscal Year 2015.
Type Description Number Popul. Served
City Organized under the Municipal Library Law or, for charter cities, under the constitutional “municipal affairs doctrine,” and pursuant to a charter adopted by the city’s voters.             119          17,813,621
County Organized under the County Free Library Law.                          In addition, the County Service Area (CSA) Law allows for the creation of a separate legal entity for library services, or a mechanism to provide financing flexibility within an existing county library system.                 44          16,068,908
Joint Powers of Authority Organized according to an agreement between the governing boards of two or more governmental entities, pursuant to the Joint Exercise of Powers Act.  A member of a JPA may also be organized as a County, City, or Independent Special District Library.               18            4,355,967
Independent Special District Libraries May be organized under the following laws:

1) Library District Law

2) Library and Museum District Law

3) Union and Unified High School District Library District Law

4) Community Services District (CSD) Law

                3                  84,391
Totals               184          38,322,887

Other States

  1. Colorado;  Public library governance, financial structure, and operational and administrative organization are not rigidly fixed in the Colorado Library Law, the regulating legislation that allows for the formation of public library districts. Library district formation and its governing structure are flexible and individual, within general state law guidelines. Within Colorado, and within the State Library Law, there are extensive opportunities to form governing structures to meet a variety of individual library needs.
  2. Idaho:  Territory must be contiguous and district lines may not cross municipal jurisdictions, unlike the Illinois and New York cases.  Multi-county jurisdictions are permitted.  The district is governed by an elected board with taxing authority.  There is substantial provision for re-drawing and combining districts into even wider units.  Roughly 48% of Idaho libraries are district libraries.  They serve 38% of the state’s population.
  3. Illinois:  In Illinois, like New York, library district boundaries may be drawn along lines that do not correspond to existing municipal boundaries. Illinois, at nearly 300, has the largest number of special district libraries, but as a percent of libraries in the state, Kentucky bests the Illinois tally at 90% to Illinois’ 48%. Three out of four Illinois residents live outside of the city of Chicago.  Of those residents, 43% are served by district libraries.
  4. Michigan:  District Library Establishment Act allows two or more municipalities to join together to form a district library. District libraries are controlled by district library boards which are taxing authorities pursuant to the Michigan Constitution, Article IX, section 6. As a taxing authority, the district library board has the power to place a districtwide library millage question on the ballot for voter approval.
  5. New York:  Special library districts are created by act of the New York State Legislature. Each one is different and reflects the particular needs and needs situation of that district. There is no comprehensive legal definition of a special library district. About 20% of New York state residents are served by special or school district libraries.  Many of the special districts are concentrated in the suburban New York City area, especially on Long Island.
  6. Texas:  In 1997, the 75th Texas Legislature passed SB1674 (codified as Chapter 326, Local Government Code) allowing voters in local jurisdictions to create a public library district to be funded by up to a half-cent in local option sales tax. In 1999, the 76th Texas Legislature amended the law (HB 1618) to allow voters in counties of more than 100,000 to approve districts. There are currently nine library districts in Texas and many other communities plan to establish them According to the Texas Library Association, under current law, library districts must obtain a costly legal ruling to pledge taxes collected as collateral to further the purposes for which the district was created. Extended terms for library district trustees would further save election costs. The law does not provide for the improvement of land in the general powers of library districts. More than half of the annual library districts elections are uncontested, costing library districts unnecessary expense in time, manpower and election costs.


District Planning Checklist

The checklists below should help communities determine whether such a combination will be the best way to provide effective public library service. The information and checklists found here should guide library planners in making good decisions. Library planners are advised to seek advice from state library agencies and regional library staff before embarking on such plans. This list was adapted for broader applicability from one developed for Wisconsin.


Yes No Planning
A preliminary study of the feasibility and suitability of the new library jurisdiction has been conducted, including a review of alternatives.
An assessment of the impact the proposed merger will have on the funding for distribution to other libraries in the county or region has been done.
The municipal governing board or boards that are to fund the program have defined their responsibilities.
Legal counsels for participating communities, the regional public library system, and the state library have reviewed the agreement noted above.
Yes No Legal Issues
The library will be established in accordance with state law.
A legally appointed and constituted public library board will govern the library.
The method and number of appointments (or election) to the board has been determined.
The library board will control the expenditure of all capital and operating moneys collected, donated, or appropriated for the public library fund as outlined in state law.
The public library board will employ a library director who is qualified and maintains the appropriate level of certification under state law (if any).
There is a clear definition of how legal counsel will be provided.  There should be provision for allocating indirect costs if legal advice is received through one of the participating municipalities.
The public library board will follow statutory requirements as to fiscal year, audits, budgeting process, and annual reports to the municipal governing authority and the state library agency.
The proposed plan clearly spells out a defined process, timetable and notice requirements for any dissolution of the library agency.  Clear provision is made for dispersal of all tangible assets in the case of dissolution of the agreement.
Yes No Building
The building that will house the proposed combined public library is in compliance with the provisions of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The building provides adequate space to implement the full range of library services consistent with the library’s comprehensive long-range plan and appropriate state standards.
The plan clearly identifies who will own the buildings, land, equipment, and other tangible assets.  Title transfer (if any) has been clearly defined.
Yes No Financial
The plan clearly specifies the respective liabilities for legal claims and judgments made against the library agency.
If the library board does not have taxing authority, or if it is a multi county or multi-community operation, there is a clearly established method for determining the total amount of annual operating and capital budgets.  This should include provision for what happens if one community agrees to a library board proposal and the other party or parties do not.  The plan clearly identifies needed deadlines, timetables, and procedures.
Yes No Personnel
The contract defines for which employment purposes the staff are to be considered employees of the library or one or the other of the constituent municipalities and/or the district.  Human resource professionals and legal counsel should be consulted so that employee as well as employer rights and privileges are properly considered.
The contract defines the share of state and federal retirement costs attributable to each participating municipality of a district.
The contract defines the shares of unfunded pension liability (if any) attributable to each participating municipality and/or the district.
There is a clear delineation regarding the personnel policy for the library staff.  This should include grievance policies, severance conditions, and necessary requirements regarding state and federal laws for equal employment, ADA requirements, and so forth.


Related Academic Research

Hammond, Christopher J. “Efficiency in the Provision of Public Services: A Data Envelopment Analysis of UK Public Library Systems.”  February 2000.

This study assesses the relative efficiency of public library services, by examining the relationship between library inputs and library outputs in multi-outlet library systems. Differences in the size of the area and population served are reflected in differences in the number of outlets and mix of outlet types. Using a Data Envelopment Analysis, which controls for the accessibility of library resources, we derive efficiency scores for 99 UK Public Library Systems. The distribution of scores is skewed, implying a tendency to efficiency, but many library systems are scale inefficient, operating under conditions of increasing returns to scale. Inefficiency is mainly associated with over subscription to serial publications.


Abstract: Municipal libraries in parts of the United States have suffered budget cuts in the last two decades. Their budgets, while small relative to other municipal services, are vulnerable where municipalities must hold constant or reduce spending because library spending cuts are perceived to pose a few threats to public health or safety. A special district may be an attractive alternative form of organization for the provision of public library services. Library district boundaries can be adjusted more easily than municipal to include relevant communities of interest and to extend services to unserved populations. Special districts have access to their own tax base and, therefore, may avoid service reduction pressures that confront municipal libraries. But special districts are not without their critics. Critics of district libraries say that they may be unresponsive to the public and that district services may cost more than their municipal counterparts. This research explores possible advantages and disadvantages of special district provision of library services, using data from library systems of the state of Illinois.

District libraries in Illinois are shown to have contributed to extension of library services to previously unserved populations over the 1980-1990 decade. Libraries that changed from municipal to district status were able to maintain funding while in many cases, reducing per capita burden on taxpayers by expanding service boundaries. Based on reports of decision making in Illinois public libraries, no evidence was found that districts are less responsive to their publics than other forms of library organization. Nor was evidence found that district organization of public libraries makes service provision more expensive or that it affects patterns of library production. This research suggests that special district provision can be a useful mechanism to preserve and extend library service by local government.


Abstract: This thesis examines the Las Vegas – Clark County Library District over the five-year period from 1991 to 1995. Based on interviews, local media coverage and budgetary data, the work traces the development of the library district during its most turbulent times. As a case study of special districts or “functional feudalities”, the Las Vegas – Clark County Library District provides an excellent microcosm for understanding competing elites, interest group politics, budgetary problems, and public perception as determinants of policy made by a non-elected governing board.


Abstract: The purpose of this study was to determine if the cost-effectiveness of public library service in metropolitan areas is related to the structure of the jurisdictional service area of those libraries. A comparison was made between multijurisdictional libraries designed to serve two or more local government districts and single jurisdictional libraries that provide service to only one local government district. Organizations, like public libraries, which exist to ensure society’s equal and universal access to information, are an essential part of this nation’s infrastructure. In the global information society of today, the issue of library service effectiveness assumes greater significance and warrants continual examination. Equally as important is the problem of determining appropriate government jurisdictions for financing and delivering local public services, especially considering the economic and social impacts of de-industrialization in major U.S. urban areas. This study directs attention to the public policy debate concerning regional versus fragmented forms of local public service delivery. The presumption of greater efficiency achieved with consolidated organizations is commonly suggested as primary motivation for mergers and consolidations in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors of society. Within this investigation, the research hypothesis stated that higher levels of cost-effectiveness are achieved with multijurisdictional libraries as opposed to single jurisdictional libraries. The data analysis centered on the input-output ratios of library circulation costs and transactions for the calendar year of 1995. Using a quasi-experimental, posttest only, control group design, the hypothesis was tested with two nonparametric rank order tests in addition to the Student’s t test and one measure of association. Results of the data analysis revealed no statistically significant difference between the two different jurisdictional structures of public libraries. The findings of this study suggest that in metropolitan areas, consolidated multijurisdictional public libraries are not more cost-effective than single jurisdictional public libraries. The research outcomes were discussed in terms of potential policy implications and future research on public service delivery.

Vitaliano, D. F, 1997, “X-Inefficiency in the Public Sector: The Case of Libraries” Public Finance Review, 25, 629-643.

Vitaliano, D. F, 1998, “Assessing Public Library Efficiency Using Data EnvelopmentAnalysis” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 69, 107-122.