Private Stacks, Public Funding

Werner Cohn

American Libraries, vol. 24, no 2, February 1993, pp.

Copyright by Werner Cohn, 1993


"It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error." These words by Justice Robert Jackson, written in 1950, formulate what has remained an axiom of our American democracy.

The axiom has obvious corollaries. Without access to adequate information, the citizen cannot exercise his civic function. Without reasonably comprehensive library facilities, there is no adequate access to information. Access to the library -- generations of American librarians have known this -- is one of the cornerstones of American democracy.

But citizen access to the library has dangerously corroded in recent years because the private university library, an absolutely necessary adjunct to the public library, has withdrawn from public service.

My direct experience has been in New York City, which I use as an example. But I have sampled enough other locations to convince me that the problem is national.




I recently returned to New York, the city of my youth, after retiring from a lifetime of university teaching in Western Canada. Among the reasons for the move were my memories of the New York Public and the other great libraries of the city. I felt confident that all my library needs would be met splendidly in New York. Reality proved to be very different. The New York Public Library
has one of the finest research collections in the world, but it also has systematic gaps. Over the years it failed to collect in law and jurisprudence, in medicine, in education, and perhaps in other fields as well.

I found very quickly that no thorough reading in my field -- social problems -- can be done within the confines of New York Public alone. All such problems, at least all those I can think of, have educational as well as legal ramifications that a conscientious scholar needs to study. (As it happens, this need for the legal and educational literature is also particularly strong whenever an ordinary citizen wishes to exercise his civic duty of keeping government honest.)

When I was a library user in New York some thirty-five years ago, such gaps disturbed nobody. Like any other reader in need of specialized library materials, I was welcomed as a visitor in the libraries of the famous private universities that, in those days, formed part of the cultural resources of the city.

Then as now there were public universities as well, all of which open their library doors to the public as a matter of policy. This is of great help to people living near large state universities, but New York City has no notable libraries in these public institutions.The important university research libraries in New York City belong to Columbia, New York, and Fordham Universities. These institutions no longer allow the public to use their libraries as once they did. To be sure, there is a loophole. A member of the public may obtain a temporary card, good for a single day, if he can prove that the particular volume he needs is not available in a public library. I have found that the restrictions surrounding this card render it useless for serious research.

It is sometimes possible, by clever uses of the one-day pass plus much negotiation and personal representation, to gain access to a university library long enough to accomplish modest research goals; not all private university library administrators think they are border police at the Berlin Wall (although some do). And some readers, especially those who can somehow show academic bona fides, can occasionally get around the restrictions. But all these strategies amount to begging for one's intellectual food.

In some ways the situation is comparable to what I encountered in London and in Paris. In these capitals the large state libraries are hallowed preserves of the elite. To gain access, one patiently explains to an official that there are good reasons, for instance academic ones, for wishing to read. But once this barrier is overcome, a library pass is issued and no further trouble is encountered. Until recent years, the American approach contrasted through its openness; everyone in America was presumed worthy of access to the wisdom of the ages. Today, as I have indicated, the situation is actually a good deal worse here than it is in Europe.In short, and disregarding what can sometimes be accomplished by mendicancy, the public is systematically excluded from scholarly materials in a number of fields. This is certainly true for law and jurisprudence, fields in which an unaffiliated person in the New York area cannot inform himself. I think that this situation restricts, in a totally unacceptable way, the citizen's ability to inform himself about his government, his culture, his society.




The public is excluded from institutions that are mostly financed with public funds. Much of this subsidy, but not all, is similar to that received by churches and other non-profit groups.

1. Although these universities enjoy, as a matter of course, all the services of the federal and state governments, they do not pay for them with income taxes. This exemption amounts to a con-siderable subsidy.

2. The universities are exempt from local property taxes. This exemption has a long history in British-American law; it amounts, again, to a very sizable, and automatic, tax payers' subsidy in the form of local government services.

3. Private donations to the universities are tax-deductible for the donors. This means that for every dollar given by a private benefactor, the tax payer contributes, or rather is charged, about thirty-five cents.

4. Governments on all levels habitually make massive grants, of various sorts, to the universities. The research grants have recently been featured in the press because some of the private universities have abused them.

5. There are even special government grants for private university libraries. The very institutions in New York whose exclusionary walls are the highest have also been among the largest beneficiaries of these library grants.




The private universities have of course had hard times. To re-open their library doors to the public will cost them money that they feel they do not have. They also feel that they have primary constituencies -- their own students and staff -- whose needs may be compromised by public service.

These arguments point to real problems, mostly financial, but they are not good excuses for the exclusionary walls that keep the public out.

The issue is one of priorities, of commitment. Private universities will do things that they consider important. They have sports programs. They pay public relations officers. They have programs for the entertainment of students and staff. Some have nice accommodations for their presidents. All these are worthy activities, but are they more important than the public's right to adequate library facilities ? The public universities, no matter how strapped for funds, have always met their public obligations in this regard.

The private universities are largely financed by public funds. Their libraries, though indispensable as public facilities, are unreasonably withheld from the very public that pays for them. This is a situa-tion that these universities should not allow to continue.


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