PVD Libraries Seeing Double

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Providence has two independently run library systems.  How did that happen?  Newcomers to the city have reason to wonder, but even long-time residents have not always taken in the difference between the Providence Public Library (PPL) and Community Libraries of Providence (CLPVD), until recently Providence Community Library (PCL).  The lifeblood of both systems, their funding, flows in two separate and sometimes confused streams.  A recent sizable bequest from someone’s estate mistakenly found its way to a library in the wrong system, up the wrong creek, so to speak.  Apparently, who knew?  Maybe people should.

The Providence Public Library, an architecturally elegant Beaux Arts building downtown, reflects the late nineteenth-century prosperity of the city.   The Community Libraries of Providence, on the other hand, have scattered histories in nine neighborhoods across the city; they became part of PPL mostly over the early twentieth century.  

The mother term “public,” is part of the problem.  It is associated today with anything provided by a government, as in “public schools.”  Libraries, however, according to Patricia Raub, who has written the early history of Providence libraries, have had more varied beginnings, founded by businessmen, working women, settlement houses, or wealthy patrons.  “Public” simply meant anyone could borrow, no membership required, but still not always free.  The origin of libraries accounts for what some libraries still call themselves today, “Free Public Library,” language that seems redundant unless you know the history.  Even today, Providence libraries are not paid for entirely with tax dollars but are funded from a variety of sources, city and state money, endowments in some cases, and constant grant writing and fundraising.  

The Providence Public Library, toward the end of the twentieth century, found itself with stagnant funding from the city and claimed it no longer had enough money to sustain ten libraries into the twenty-first century.  There was talk of closing some branches.   At one point, there was even talk of selling the main library or turning all libraries over to the city.  By 2004, PPL was cutting library hours to help keep branches open.  By May 2006, the Providence Journal prominently featured Bob and Eileen Medeiros and their children marching with over a hundred others from all over the city, demanding the six branches targeted not be closed.  Washington Park, the Medeiros’s library, was closed for repairs and was not slated to reopen.  According to Patricia Raub, leader of the Reform Library Group, PPL had threatened to close six branches in 1992.  A court case was filed to stop these closings. 

The branches were caught between PPL and the city, with those libraries that were slated to close being the ones serving “neighborhoods who need them the most,” according to the protestors.  The branch libraries scheduled for closure were mostly in the poorer neighborhoods of the city.  Patrons in those communities felt their libraries were being sacrificed to support the central library.  PPL had a sizable endowment, so libraries scheduled for closing, protestors argued, could be saved by using more of the endowment.  PPL countered that using the endowment threatened the long-term existence of libraries in the system. The tensions came to a head when in 2009 the Reform Group, on behalf of the branches, proposed to run the nine libraries if the city would grant them the money scheduled to be given PPL to keep all branches open.  The then mayor David Cicilline had at first seen no economic gain in splitting the libraries, yet PPL would not keep them open without running a deficit.  When the Reform Group submitted their plan to keep all branches open, Cicilline signed on.  In July 2009, nine neighborhood branches began life as The Community Library of Providence.

But the conflict was not over.  Within two years of the split, the consequences of deferred maintenance in the branches and little to no budgeting for repairs raised the issue of who owned the buildings.  PPL still owned the branches.  PPL had, however, handed them over “as is” to the city to be run.  The city was leasing them from PPL for one dollar a year.  Who was responsible for repairs?  The neighborhood libraries and the city pointed to PPL, unless ownership was passed to the city.  PPL saw the buildings as their “assets” and wanted compensation before giving up ownership.  A second lawsuit was filed by those supporting the neighborhood libraries. Heated accusations and defenses filled the pages of the Providence Journal.

Washington Park Library displaying signs from both PPL and CLPVD.

As early as 2006, before the split, a Providence Journal editorial had suggested that PPL had enough of an endowment to support the central library, along with its own fundraising.  It wrote that the arguing could stop if PPL gave the branches to the city.  It took five years for those involved to come to an arrangement accepted by all three parties, PPL, the city, and Providence Community Library.   The agreement in 2011 finally dealt with the patchwork of nine buildings, the history of their mortgages and deeds, permitting PCL to start applying for funding to repair the buildings. 

If much of the conflict between systems was about funding, PPL has survived the years of tumult handsomely.  It kept the endowment that had helped support all ten libraries before the split.  The central library has undergone several renovations, one a decade ago that restored spaces in the historic building now used as a wedding venue.  The more recent and stunning restoration, however, has completely reconfigured the library’s original building with its 1950s addition.  New spaces have been provided for archives, for community use, and new programming. 

In the same period, the neighborhood libraries have all managed extensive maintenance projects, even if frequently under emergency conditions.  Maintenance for nine libraries is a significant responsibility with ongoing challenges.  One neighborhood library, Knight Memorial Library, awaits precisely the kind of renovation PPL underwent, a complete historical preservation of a Providence architectural gem and renewal of its mission to respond to its diverse surrounding community. 

Yet all ten libraries have survived. According to Cheryl Space, Director of The Community Libraries of Providence, the city has “two vibrant systems,” both remaining nonprofit, public-private partnerships.  She sees more cooperation than duplication.  Jack Martin, Director of PPL, and Space coordinate the hours and standards for staffing all libraries.  They share programming for schools, teens, and adult learning.  A library card from any library works in all libraries.  A not illogical question here might be whether the libraries might not benefit by combining once again.  The systems, however, feel they are meeting different needs and have distinct identities even as they have established cooperation on many fronts.  According to Martin, PPL functions as a state library with its special collections, open-source learning, meeting spaces, and collection of educational data even as it offers programs to nearby downtown high schools.  Neighborhood libraries, according to Space, are all supported in their efforts to be the hub of learning suited to their communities. 

PPL’s central library is now celebrating 150 years of operation; Knight Memorial Library, a neighborhood library, approaches its 100th year in 2024.  The task of preserving the long-established traditions that keep libraries in all communities requires both public and private support.  At this point, most residents of Providence use the libraries without knowing much if any of this history.  People should know, however, that fundraising for the two library systems is quite separate.  Providence Public Library (PPL) is one central facility, with services for the entire state.  Community Libraries of Providence (CLPVD) are all over the city, the largest library system in the state.  Public support is critical to the survival of both systems, and donors should give generously and be clear about where their money goes.

Roseanne Camacho has lived in Providence for 57 years.  She is a retired educator.