Getting Good Governance

A Very Brief History of Providence's Library Reform Movement

by Vera Carothers

Illustration by Mariam Quraishi

published April 19, 2013

There is a big red sign with Providence Community Library written in white block letters. Inside, the reading room feels calm, almost sleepy. Cracks draw the eye up the wall to the high ceilings. In one place there is a hole, paint peeling away from it. At the computers, a few seniors scroll quietly. Tutors at wooden tables prepare for the after-school crowd. Afternoon light lazes over boxes of used books. Five books for $1—that’s a ridiculous sale. I’m tempted by beat-up copies of Roald Dahl epics and the keenly titled Awesome Gardening for Young Dads, but I stop myself because I see Patricia Raub, a founder and board member of the Providence Community Library (PCL) whom I have asked for an interview, at the circulation desk. She’s wearing a gray turtleneck and chatting familiarly with the other librarians. I introduce myself as the person writing the piece about the library takeover. I am unsure, as I say it, what that means. 

In the fall of 2008, decades of brinkmanship between the Providence Public Library (PPL), the private nonprofit that ran the municipal library system at the time, and the city government ended with an ultimatum. The PPL’s statement was calm and authoritative: as a result of a “sustainability survey,” the PPL would be forced to close down five of the nine neighborhood branches in Providence unless the city government increased its yearly funding (despite its $35 million endowment). City officials were disgruntled by the threat of implosion of the library infrastructure, which has been controlled by the PPL for over 130 years. 

Meanwhile, in the wings, library reformers exchanged the signal. It was time for a library takeover. A group of reformers, finding consensus in its absolute disillusionment with the PPL, had recently founded a 501(c)(3) organization called the Providence Community Library (PCL). The group believed that despite its inexperience, it could do a better job running the nine neighborhood branch libraries than the PPL. With empty coffers and a bad taste in its mouth, the city approved a transfer of governance of the branch libraries to the PCL, effective July 1, 2009. The PCL moved to make good on its founding tenets: transparency and diverse community representation in its decisions. “When we started the PCL, we said, ‘We need to get everyone involved.’ We went around to all the neighborhoods in Providence and there was a lot of community support,” says founding member Judy Blackadar.  


No More Money

Last year, Mayor Angel Taveras warned that Providence might have to file for bankruptcy protection. The city expected an annual structural deficit of $110 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year. This January, however, the city closed the books with a structural deficit of only $4 million. The city had sacrificed $36.5 million in union and retiree concessions, $30 million in education cuts, and increased taxes by $23 million. In the next five years, the city will have to pay the current deficit back to the state and try to close the structural debt, the projected $4 million gap between the city revenue and its expenses each year, a figure which may even widen. This means that city government will continue to struggle to fulfill public services like education, housing, and health care for the foreseeable future. 

Public money is becoming scarcer in settings way beyond Providence as city, state, and national governments are increasingly forced to cut services and privatize. The climate of recession and austerity focuses attention on equitable and accountable governance, an age-old struggle for private nonprofits such as the PPL and the PCL which render public services. 

Monopoly on Libraries

Since its inception 135 years ago, the Providence public library system has been in private hands. Providence followed the model of other cities in New England (like Boston and Springfield), a region unique for building library systems before government funded social services were conceived of. In the 1880s, wealthy residents and philanthropists formed the Providence Public Library (PPL), an organization chartered as a private nonprofit to support community libraries. Along with the growth of immigration and industry in Providence, the PPL eventually expanded and institutionalized the informal network of community libraries into the municipal library system. Until 2009, when the organization was diverted from its municipal role, the PPL received about one third of its annual budget from the city and an even greater portion from the state. Like other non-profits, it was in part dependent on donations to its $35 million endowment. However, it received 70% of its budget from either city or state “public” money—much of it funded by taxpayers. 

So in theory, despite its private status, the PPL is accountable to the government because it provides a public service. However, the relationship between the PPL board and the City Council had been fraught with tension as far back as the 1950s and ’60s, library reform activist Judy Blackadar tells me. Many Providence residents were unaware of the library’s status, believing it to be a government agency and therefore wrongly blaming the city for faults in service. The Providence Journal (whose main financiers include a member of the library board) ran angry letters to the editor from library patrons who indicted the city for not providing the library with sufficient funds. The last decade of Providence Journal archives reads like a timeline of the conflict between city and library— a series of landmark disputes, legal actions, and hostile negotiations.

The connecting thread of these tensions was the lack of accountability of the PPL to the city. Of its 33 board members, dominated by academic and institutional local elites, the PPL offered the city one spot for a city representative. In November 2005, the City Council and the PPL sparred over this lack of Council representation. Under the heat of community unrest about library service cuts and redistributions, the Council pushed to instate nine new library board representatives for the city. In turn, the PPL brandished a harsh ultimatum: it would reject the $3 million the city provides annually if the Council demanded the right to appoint what would be a third of its board members. The city was backed in a corner; they could not allow the PPL to default on its services. This ploy left the city with little recourse for oversight. Taxpayers had even less. Pre-PCL takeover, the situation amounted to “taxation without representation,” pointed out Lisa Niebels, a member of the Library Reform Group, a group that rose in opposition to the PPL (more on them later). 

Interestingly, both sides of the heated debate invoked the roles of public and private to justify their actions. Frustrated City Councilman Luis Aponte argued in the Providence Journal that any institution that accepts so much money from the public is no longer a private institution. The Council felt that although the board portrays itself as a private vendor that “sells” its services to the city, it had an obligation of transparency to the public. Howard Walker, vice-president of the PPL board, retorted that this would unfairly subject private donations to political interests and amount to “public control of a private institution.” 

Finally, after a three-month standoff, the board issued a statement saying it would “agree to work toward a new arrangement with the City of Providence.” A month later, the PPL board reneged without public discussion of any kind and passed a vague internal resolution against accepting City representation. “We thought there would be negotiations taking place right here, right now,” said Patricia Raub, a Providence College professor who (take note) would later spearhead the founding of the PCL. She was quoted in the Providence Journal: “I’m angry. It’s a signal to us that they would rather do nothing at all.” Their proceedings consistently lacked transparency, and they seemed determined to ignore ever more urgent calls for open discussion of library policies. 

Move to Reform

The library reform group, which would go on to form the PCL, was created in 2004 after the latest periodic wave of service cuts shook the community that spring, laying off 21 staffers and reducing hours at many branches. The group, a grassroots movement of library friends’ groups, patrons, and community activists alike, believed that the stubborn, out-of-touch leadership of the board was to blame for the flagging services more than a shrinking city budget. Its goal was to push public accountability of the PPL board, which they felt was overspending on administration. Less than a month after the cuts, the public discovered that the library’s top five administrators had averaged a salary increase of 12% a year since 1998. The outrage that ensued helped fuel the reform movement. xThat summer, the group embarked on its biggest project yet: drafting and passing an Open Meetings Law in the city legislature that would require quasi-public organizations to open their board meetings to the public. The group’s campaign of rallies and petitions was incredibly effective; by the fall, the law had passed. 

Before the PPL could hold their first public meeting on September 15, 2005, the board met to move fundraising activities to a new “private” foundation that would not be subject to the law. This first meeting was not only closed to the public, but also to city officials. “Just their big donors are invited?” said Councilwoman Rita M. Williams, outraged. “The board has always impressed me as being very elitist. They are trying to keep their finances out of public scrutiny apparently. Why do that? What is it that they are hiding?” In a public statement, library board member Maureen Sheridan deigned to spell out the board’s motivations: “Just as public donors— the taxpayers— want accountability for their taxpayer dollars, private donors want accountability for their private dollars and many donors want that done privately.” 

At this point, the situation was very clear for Patricia Raub, then head of the Library Reform Group. The board wasn’t prioritizing the public interest. “They don’t want to change. I’m not saying they are doing anything wrong. I think it has more to do with power,” she said. The head of the library board was making a salary larger than that of Providence’s mayor. The board was more focused on pouring resources into the downtown Central Library, which enjoys national prestige for its historic collection, than into the neighborhood branches. The preponderance of board members, living “in the 02906 zip code”—well-heeled neighbors like the East Side or Barrington— had little or no contact with the neighborhoods slated to be closed in 2008, such as Fox Point, Smith Hill, Wanskuck, Olneyville, and Washington Park. 

For the members of the Library Reform Group, the board failed its purpose by being out of touch with the genuine needs of communities. Judy Blackadar, a founding member of the PCL, recalls going to the board meetings (once they were opened to the public) with fellow library reformer Ellen Schwartz, an accountant who would grill the PPL on financial specifics: “The board was never happy to see us at their meetings—and we are their patrons!” This conflict, it seems, stems from conflicting ideas about the role of libraries in society. Arguably, the board was operating with a different view than members of the communities they supposedly served. It was attached to the idea of the library as a pantheon, an antiquated view perhaps tied to its 130-year-old tradition of leadership. In Patricia Raub’s opinion, however, the role of libraries has changed drastically in the last few decades: they are no longer historical repositories of knowledge but community centers that keep kids off the street and provide opportunities for learning and advancement. “It’s not your quiet library anymore,” she adds. 

When it took over the nine neighborhood branch libraries in July 2009, the PCL instated an organization structure that diverged dramatically from that of the PPL, who continued to run the downtown Central library. In order to ensure broad-based representation and accountability to patrons and taxpayers, each branch’s Friends group elects some board members while others are appointed by the Mayor, City Council, and Governor. The Board itself appoints some members, such as the staff representative (a new position created by the PCL). The Board also attempts to disperse the top-down leadership through various committees such as a staff committee, which gives those with a day-to-day knowledge of the library’s workings a voice, and a fundraising committee. 

The transition to the new system has by no means been flawless. It has been tough on long-term library staffers who were accustomed to the more hands-off management style of the PPL. In contrast, the PCL method amounts to micro-management. One staff member says staff is now over-committed because they have to balance serving on a committee with an already demanding job. Although the staffer acknowledges that the PCL’s focus on community and the public interest is admirable, she bemoans the shortcomings of a board headed by well-meaning ideologues without a concrete grasp or either the everyday mechanisms of the library or the process of fundraising. 

The Good Fight

July will be the PCL’s fourth anniversary. They are still struggling to balance private and public interests. Community support is high, but consensus still proves a challenge. Just last month, internal board conflict led to the firing of the head of one of the library Friends groups. Although the PCL managed to end last year debt neutral, they still face serious pressure to increase fundraising revenue. The Smith Hill library will finally undergo much-needed renovations this summer to install an elevator that would make bathrooms handicap accessible. However, it will not be getting AC units. A staffer tells me they were only open a total of three days last summer due to the heat. Many of the problems that the PCL faces were also sites of conflict under PPL leadership. The PCL can’t install AC or fix every crack in the ceiling. The difference going forward is that they are making a genuine attempt at community representation. 

VERA CAROTHERS B’14 is threatening takeover.