COMMENTARY:

Why Baltimore Needs A Public Library System

by Jane Shipley
The Pratt insists on private status despite its overwhelming dependence on public funding.

By the end of the 19th century, when most U.S. cities began creating public libraries, Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library was nearly two decades old—owned by the Mayor and City Council, funded with private dollars deposited with the city for annual dispersal, and managed by a Board of Trustees shielded from public accountability.

By 1908, the budget of every comparable library system in the country exceeded the $50,000 Pratt annuity, and Pratt Trustees petitioned to have their funding augmented with tax dollars.

Today, the “Free” library relies on tax dollars for its very existence, but Pratt’s Board operates as if its mission were safeguarding the assets of a private institution rather than enhancing the social welfare of Baltimoreans.

This public/private disparity is the fault line in the ongoing struggle between Pratt’s Board and citizens who believe that preserving neighborhood libraries is vital to the city’s future, and this conflict can only be resolved by radically reconfiguring the management of the library or by ending its tax-dollar support and assigning those funds to create and maintain a truly public Baltimore City library system.

Pratt’s insistence on private status despite its overwhelming dependence on public funding has clouded its relationship with the city and its citizens for decades. By 1929, nearly 90% of the library’s budget of approximately $400,000 came from tax dollars, and the city compelled the unwilling Trustees to include Pratt employees on the City payroll, turn over its income to the Board of Estimates, and channel expenditures through the Bureau of Disbursements. The carrot was Pratt’s 1930 yearly tax-dollar allocation and $3 million more in public funds to construct the new Central library.

Although the City’s financial officers forced Pratt into the public fiscal fold, the City Solicitor alternatively argued that Pratt was a private institution in his bitterly negative response to the 1934 request of the City-Wide Young People’s Forum that the city withhold a portion of Pratt’s funding because Pratt refused to admit African-Americans to its librarian training course (the only such course in the state).

During the 1945 court case that resolved this issue, the City and Pratt maintained, “the Library is a private corporation, controlled and managed by the board of trustees, and does not perform any public function as a representative of the state.” In its decision to the contrary, a Federal Appeals Court cited Pratt’s incorporation through state law rather than private action, the voluntary appropriations from city tax coffers (the budget was $858,246 by 1944), and the city’s control of Pratt’s finances as evidence that “the library is an instrumentality of the State of Maryland” and must admit African-Americans (instead, Pratt’s Trustees ended the training course).

During the McCarthy era, the City Solicitor’s office made a breathtaking reversal when it relied on this ruling to force Pratt employees to sign a loyalty oath. In the 1960’s and 70’s; however, it reverted to the “Pratt is private” argument to shield the library from compliance with various municipal ordinances and the new State Public Information Act.

The courts were more consistent in their endorsement of the “Pratt is public” position. In a 1970 decision allowing the transfer of the Peabody Library to Pratt, an Appeals Court noted that, because the City appropriated $6 million per year to Pratt with “no suggestion that this pattern is likely to change,” the City’s argument that “the Pratt, like the Peabody, is a private institution” was “unrealistic and unpersuasive.”

These court rulings have not shaken Pratt’s belief in its private status—a belief that has been passed-down almost as a genetic trait by its self-perpetuating Board of Trustees, many of whom hold their life appointments for decades (at one point, heirs of especially influential families “inherited” seats on Pratt’s board over several generations). Thus, in the 1997 lawsuit brought by citizens trying to save the St. Paul Street Library, Pratt’s lawyers and the City Solicitor sang a familiar song, “The Board of Trustees is a self-appointed, purely private body that governs a private corporation.” Once again, the presiding judge disagreed.

Even the ensuing court order that Pratt obey the Open Meetings Act was not enough to compel Pratt to behave like a public agency, and discussion at its illegally closed retreat this past fall once again underscored the public/private fault-line.

Pratt’s belief in its private prerogative explains why its planning process occurs far from public view and seeks public input only about relatively minor details of finalized plans, such as determining the disposition of a library building that Pratt has decided to close (an action a judge in the 1997 case termed as despicable as asking potential murder victims to plan their own funerals).

This top-down, corporate style behavior is also reflected in Pratt’s disposition of its private funds. In an astonishing turn-around, the private funds that were once the life-blood of the library are now reserved for “enhancements,” and Pratt administrators insist that essential services must be funded solely with on tax dollars. Thus, the Board refuses to tap its multi-million dollar endowment to save neighborhood libraries, instead allocating its private donations to create a “Children’s Garden” at Central (open only a few hours each week) and the elaborate children’s library at Port Discovery.

Consider also the Gift Shop at Central, reportedly operated with Trustee money, that has lost nearly $200,000 in recent years but remains open because it allegedly attracts visitors and augments the library’s public image. Pratt may be using these “enhancements” in an attempt to repair a national reputation sullied by a bottom-of-the-barrel national ranking in areas of basic service, such as circulation and card registration.

The public/private conflict becomes most glaringly visible when Pratt seeks to close neighborhood libraries—the most completely public service-oriented aspect of its operation—in order to consolidate its assets.

Pratt does not want to operate a system of neighborhood libraries and, unsurprisingly, is doing a terrible job of it. Pratt administrators blame their failure to secure what they deem as adequate funding and their extraordinarily poor performance indicators on a shrinking population. Neighborhood library supporters believe, on the contrary, that these failures are due to the Board’s refusal to operate the library as a public agency.

This longstanding public/private contradiction is not resolvable by simply allocating more funds to the Pratt. Executive Director Hayden’s recent refusal of an offer of $1.1 million from the City Council indicates that what guides Pratt’s decision-making process is not the public interest in neighborhood libraries but some other, unpublished, corporate mission.

There are only a few reasonable responses to this predicament. One is simply to dissolve the unaccountable and very likely illegitimate Board (see www.savelibraries.org) and replace it with a publicly accountable governing body—a task that would require the intervention of elected officials and/or the courts.

Another is for the Mayor to use the power of the purse-strings to compel Pratt’s Board of Trustees to vest management and control of the library in a publicly accountable governing body, with the Trustees’ role reduced to shepherding Pratt’s multi-million dollar endowment fund.

A third possibility, one that would allow Pratt’s Board to enjoy its “private” status in peace, is for the City to stop allocating tax dollars to Pratt and, instead, take over the neighborhood libraries and create a bona fide city agency, “The Baltimore City Public Library,” with a publicly accountable, truly representative governing board.

If state lawmakers wish, they could continue to fund Pratt’s role as the State library and thereby support Central.

There are two ways this can become a reality. Citizens can pressure the Mayor to introduce appropriate legislation to create this new city agency and fund it with a reallocation of our library tax dollars formerly given to Pratt. Should this lobbying effort fail, or in conjunction with this effort, citizens can also collect the requisite number of signatures of registered voters to compel inclusion of a City Charter amendment creating the new library system as a question on the ballot at the next election.

The Enoch Pratt Free Library is no longer “Free” and has never been truly public since its conception. It is time for the voters of Baltimore City to insist that our tax dollars support a truly public library system—a bona fide city agency that must answer to the people it serves, who are also the people who pay the bills.


Jane Shipley is a resident of South Charles Village.


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This story was published on September 5, 2001.