Privatizing the Library

Privatizing the Library

The Library was privatized in 1994 after over a century of being a public entity run by a public board.   Its management, acting as a secret society, then ignored state law, utilized it for purposes beyond those of the library, ran it into deep debt, and is determined to continue on the same course.

The public - private switch

From 1890 until 1994 the library was a public entity run by an 18 member public "commission."   Andrew Carnegie was adamant "that it is only by the city maintaining its public libraries as it maintains its public schools, that every citizen can be made to feel that he is a joint proprietor of them, and that the public library is for the public as a whole and not for any portion thereof; and I am equally clear that unless a community is willing to maintain public libraries at the public cost, that very little good can be obtained from them.   Not to save me further expenditure therefore, but for the best interests of the city, I make it a condition that they shall be properly maintained by the city."

Wasn't the library created as a private trust?

No, the library was not created as a trust and has never been operated as a trust.   Mr. Carnegie deliberately did not establish an actual, legal trust for the library and, in fact, explicitly referred to the Board as a "commission" which ran the library.   There was no trust established because he stipulated that the library be publicly funded in its entirety, whereas the Carnegie Institute, which operated the museum, was to be entirely privately endowed and for which he did establish a trust.

Why does it have a Board of Trustees then?

Carnegie set up the Library Board with an equal number of public and private seats.   The latter were filed by "Lifetime Trustees," hence his calling it the "Board of Trustees."   Yet he never otherwise mentioned a "trust;" he never identified or created a trust for the Library; and he alternatively referred to the Board as a "commission."   Neither is there any mention of a "trust" in City Council's legislation establishing the Carnegie Free Library of the City of Pittsburgh.

Equally confusing, when Mr. Carnegie created the philanthropy for the remainder of his fortune, he called it the Carnegie Corporation of New York.   If named today, it would be called the Carnegie Foundation and the Library's governing body would be called its Board of Directors.

After the passage of the Regional Asset District legislation, in 1994 the Library Board went to City Council and Orphans Court with a proposal to add 12 new "term appointee" seats, ostensibly for corporate fundraisers who were to acquire private operating funds from the corporate sector.   On that stated basis both the Court and Council went along with the change.

It is hard to imagine such a proposal being made without having received the advice to do so from the region's corporate interests.   Interestingly, it was not explained nor ever mentioned that that change in composition actually constituted privatization of the public library.   But it did!

The Library had become a private entity, in defiance of Andrew Carnegie's explicit wishes, based upon a 1972 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in a case involving Temple University.   That case involved an effort to acquire information from the university board of directors about its finances.   The court ruled that even though it was publicly financed, the university did not need to open its books because "a board is not public where the majority of its members are not public officials," i.e., serving either ex officio (by virtue of holding their particular office) or being their appointees who serve at their pleasure and are answerable to them.

From its beginning in 1890 until 1974, the Library's governing body had an equal number of public and private seats, qualifying it as a public body under the 1972 ruling.   In 1974 the composition was changed to give the County 4 seats and the City 6, for a total of 10 public seats.   The private seats were reduced by one, giving the public sector a clear 10-8 majority -- definitely a public body.

Both in structure and in its functioning, the Library has been effectively privatized since 1994.   Evidently, though, the 12 seats added in 1994 were not enough to satisfy the corporate interests, because in 2004 the Board added 8 additional term seats, raising their number to 20 and giving them an absolute majority over the original 18 member board.   These "term appointees" serve up to two staggered 3 year terms, and, while not exclusively corporate individuals, they are overwhelmingly from the corporate sector.

The first impacts of Privatization

As a privatized library, the Board has deemed itself exempt from the Pennsylvania Library Code and has ignored it with impunity.   The Code requires the director of a "district library" (the Carnegie Library is one of four in the the state) have a minimum of a Masters in Library Science degree and a minimum of 5 years previous experience running a library.   When the Library Director died in 1998, they figured they would do the state one better by hiring Herb Elish, a former corporate CEO with no library training or experience -- he candidly admitted his first day that he never even had a library card until he was appointed the director of the library system.   They continued the practice when Elish left in 2005, hiring the current director who likewise has no library training or previous experience running a library, as required by law.

The first order of business was to scrap the traditional role of libraries throughout history of being an archive of human knowledge and the repository of our society's culture for research, study, and personal fulfillment.   It was instead replaced with the commercial booksellers model epitomized by Borders and Barnes & Noble.   The new standard for which titles to keep in the library's collection became their rate of circulation, not its quality or importance as a literary work.   Librarians with scruples went into guerrilla mode on their own, sneaking into the stacks, checking out and in again piles of lesser used books of merit in order to pump up their circulation nubers and keep them from being discarded. -- As if librarians have nothing better to do with their time.

Nonetheless, collections were decimated.   The Science and Technology Section was eliminated in whole.   But one can now buy coffee and refreshments where once there were books.

On a roll

The Library management didn't stop there.   Once the new corporate fundraisers were seated in 1994, they turned around and told the Board they couldn't raise any operating funds, that all they would be able to get would be donations for capital funding of new construction.   So they set forth a grand agenda of lavish new construction.   Unfortunately they couldn't raise the private capital funding needed.

So, in 2001 the Board went back to City Council and Orphan's Court, this time claiming they needed the ability to borrow money in order to smooth out their operating budget between appropriations and their receipt of the funding.   Up until this time, the library had been able to function without every acquiring indebtedness. Once again, the Library management pitched a high speed change up and both the Court and Council swung at it by giving their approvals.   Little or no mention was made of capital debt at the time.   However, the new indebtedness was quickly used to acquire millions of dollars of capital debt to pay for a construction binge.   By last year, the capital debt service alone roughly equaled the entire deficit which is still being cited as justification for closing branches.

Clearly, had the Library not been privatized and gone on its speculative construction spree, it would not have run up the huge debt that remains to be paid off; there would not be the large deficit; and, though times might have been tight just as they are for the suburban libraries too, we would not be facing any branch closings.

Still rolling

Instead of simply refinancing the library debt to pay off the old bond with money from a new bond at a lower interest rate and using the savings for operations, management took out a larger bond to use for more construction.   That's like a person who is struggling to put food on the table refinancing their mortgage and instead of lowering their payments so they can buy more food for their kids, taking out a larger mortgage to build a garage and swimming pool in their back yard.