How we know Pratt left us a public, not a private, library

March 27, 1997|By Jane Ball Shipley

RECENTLY THE Board of Directors of Enoch Pratt Free Library sought to circumvent Maryland's open meetings law by asserting to the Attorney General that both the Pratt board and the Pratt library are private institutions. The fact that Pratt's board considers the library a private institution may come as a shock to those of us who have grown up believing the Pratt is our library, but this argument is not new.

In the beginning, however, it was clear to all that Enoch Pratt endowed a public library; he did not create a private institution. Pratt was a prudent businessman, and before he started he looked into how library service was delivered in other parts of the country.

This research would likely have pointed him to an article published in 1876 where William Poole, librarian of the Chicago Public Library, defined a public library as an agency established by state law, supported by local taxation or voluntary gifts and open to every citizen of its political subdivision.

This definition built upon the 1851 pronouncement of Charles Jewett, librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, that a public library was accessible either without restriction or upon easily met conditions. Enoch Pratt made certain that the library he donated to the citizens of Baltimore fulfilled all of these requirements.

Public from the start

The public nature of the library was not lost on the city, either. Its 1882 ordinance accepting the property and the money Enoch Pratt donated for a library trust fund begins, "Whereas, Enoch Pratt, of the City of Baltimore, has agreed to establish a Free Public Library . . ." So the first trustees understood they were to manage a public library. At the formal opening of the library on Jan. 4, 1886, the Hon. George William Brown of the Board of Trustees stated that "never in Maryland has a public Institution been founded with so much care."

As time passed, the fact that the Board of Trustees is self-perpetuating (it continually appoints its own members) has obscured its origins in a state statute, as well as the fact that an amendment to that statute could change the board or eliminate it. This means the board is operating under public authority.

The argument that Pratt is private grew out of this lack of clarity and has been forwarded at various points in the library's history, most notably by the Baltimore City solicitor in a Jan. 29, 1934, letter to the mayor supporting the library's refusal to admit African Americans to its training course.

A telling court case

This issue was resolved in the 1945 lawsuit, Keer et al. v. Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore City.

In deciding for the plaintiffs, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals followed the Supreme Court's standard that even if a body were nominally private (and Pratt was not identified as private by its donor or by those involved in its creation), the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies if the body or organization acts in place of the state or as a representative of the state in exercising a state function.

The court found Pratt unambiguously public in nature and noted that "although [Enoch] Pratt furnished the inspiration and the funds initially, the authority of the state was invoked to create the institution and to vest the power of ownership in one . . . instrumentality [the Mayor and City Council] and the power of management in another [the Board of Trustees]."

The court further held that the library "was completely owned and supported from its inception by the state," and that Enoch Pratt "chose to found a public institution to be owned and supported by the city but to be operated by a self-perpetuating board of trustees to safeguard it from political manipulation." The fact that this was accomplished by a special act of the legislature meant that "the powers and obligations of the city and the trustees were not conferred by Mr. Pratt, but by the state at the very inception of the enterprise."

The court justified its decision, in part, by noting that the city makes appropriations to the library over and above its legal obligations (the annual disbursement of $50,000 from the trust fund). Also, all library expenditures come through the city; library employees are paid according to the city's salary scale; and Pratt employees are included in the city's retirement system.

One could add that paychecks of library employees are issued by the mayor and City Council, the library director sits in the mayor's cabinet, the library is listed under "government" in the phone book, its phones are part of the city system, it repeatedly calls itself "public." The library uses city stationery, and all library property belongs to the mayor and city Council.

Where the money comes from

The relationship between the city, state and the library cannot be clearly understood without considering that more than 95 percent of the library's budget is derived from public funds.

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