A princess sits on the New York Public Library’s board of trustees, but no one from Staten Island does, despite the library’s 13 branches in the borough.

Her Royal Highness Princess Firyal of Jordan, a philanthropist, socialite, and UNESCO Goodwill ambassador, is one of nearly 100 trustees on the boards of the New York, Queens and Brooklyn Public libraries, which are non-profit institutions funded largely by the city.

These boards are responsible for oversight of more than 200 branches and hundreds of millions of city dollars. In an era of tight budgets and record library usage, what trustees decide about renovations, capital projects, programming and staff matters for everyday users.

Over the last year, library trustees have seen more of the spotlight than usual because of moves that put boards at odds with public opinion: NYPL’s now-abandoned plan to insert a circulating library in place of the stacks at its iconic building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn Public Library’s still-active effort to sell its Brooklyn Heights branch to private developers, and the Queen’s Public Library board’s split vote on whether to require library chief Thomas Galante to take a leave of absence given city and federal investigations into library construction projects and contracts.

These disputes have exposed weak points in the public-private hybrid structure of the libraries, where the non-profit status of boards limits outside oversight and access to information even as the libraries press for more public funding after years of cuts. At a time of growing income inequality, the role of trustees who can give or raise private money to support the libraries also prompts more fundamental questions: How representative of the city are the library boards? Whose interests do they represent?   

As repositories of information available to anyone who walks through the door, libraries have always helped foster transparency, accountability and democracy. Their boards, however, struggle on all three counts.

Little public information

Finding out who sits on the library boards isn’t difficult — each library posts a list of trustees on its website and keeps it relatively up to date. But learning more about the person behind each name can be challenging. None of the libraries include trustees’ bios on their websites, and none provided them when asked to for this story. And that old reporter’s standby, actually talking to someone in person, only goes so far.

When asked for basic biographical information — age, profession, neighborhood, years on the board — following a meeting last month, four Queens trustees declined to answer or provide a phone number for a later interview. "I don’t think I’m going to do that," said trustee William Jefferson. The others — Grace Lawrence, Patricia Flynn and Terri C. Mangino — simply said "no."

As in Queens, NYPL trustees don’t seem eager for scrutiny. After suggesting that I forgo the "schlep" in for what promised to be a "boring" meeting of the Trustees’ Capital Committee in January, an NYPL spokesman asked me outright not to attend because "having a reporter in the room makes some people nervous."

Members of the public rarely sat in on Brooklyn library board meetings until the controversial plans to sell branches emerged; before Galante came under fire this year, the Queens board operated in similar obscurity. Matt Gorton, a member of the Queens board since 2008, says, "We always knew the meetings were public meetings, but I don’t remember anyone ever showing up."

Perhaps that’s because the public can’t speak at them. Members of the public can listen at board meetings but formal communication with the board is limited to letter-writing.

The public is entitled to receive meeting minutes—though in 2012, the Queens library denied copies of minutes to a group of union officials who requested them until a state Supreme Court judge required the library to make them available. As non-profits, the boards must file 990 tax filings, a starting point for transparency with its lists of trustees, top executive salaries, and overall revenues and expenses. The boards are subject to the state’s Open Meetings Law but typically not New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

Different structures

Each board operates under very different structures, outlined in bylaws and state legislation. In Queens, the mayor and borough president make alternate appointments to the 19-member board, which includes one appointee from each of Queens’ 14 community boards.

NYPL’s trustees are selected by a trustees’ nominating committee and elected (and re-elected) by the board itself. Members are not required to live in New York City. Trustees—currently 39, but as many as 44 - are chosen with an eye to expertise that can help the library, but because NYPL must raise its own money to support its four major research libraries, deep pockets are welcome.

Brooklyn’s 38-member board operates in a middle ground: The mayor and borough president appoint the majority of trustees, but the board itself elects a dozen board members who can match concern for the library with fundraising abilities. New York and Brooklyn trustees serve three-year terms; in Queens, the terms are five years. Re-election and re-appointments are common .

NYPL suggested Googling its trustees, and the prominence of its members does make it easy to identify them with an online search (though finding them all takes a while). Harder to discover is how long each member has been on the board, or how much of what’s online is accurate. Brooklyn’s members also have a substantial Internet presence, but information about their appointments or election is also scarce.

Getting to know the Queens board is more difficult. Many members are well known in the borough through their businesses, involvement with a community board, or role in city government, but the traces they have left — at least online — don’t lend themselves to anything like a complete or accurate bio.

When asked for that information during a trustees’ meeting break, library spokeswoman Joanne King was able to provide basic, off the cuff identification for about half the trustees. Even some on the board have only a vague sense of their fellow members’ backgrounds and ties.

Fundraising skills are a must

Spokesman Ken Weine notes that NYPL’s board composition reflects its trustees’ hefty fundraising role — they raise $90 million a year to support its four research libraries and $955 million endowment — thereby accounting for the significant mix of philanthropists, socialites and financiers.