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New York Court Declares That Libraries Are Educational Institutions

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By Michael Kelley Jun 2, 2011

In a decision being hailed by librarians in New York, the Supreme Court of Suffolk County has ruled that libraries are educational institutions. The decision places libraries squarely on the same privileged level as schools and churches when it comes to zoning disputes and may also position them advantageously for future budget battles.

The court declared on May 17 that the East Hampton Library is entitled to expand its children's area without being subject to an environmental review that the local zoning board had been insisting upon. Chartered libraries such as East Hampton "are, indeed, educational uses and as such, serve the same inherently beneficial effects on the community as do schools," and are, therefore, entitled to "the same deferential treatment in zoning and like matters that are accorded to schools and religious institutions," the ruling reads.

Ruling might make lawmakers think differently
"This decision recognizes that libraries are not cultural amenities. They are educational institutions and are an essential public service," said Michael Borges, the executive director of the New York Library Association (NYLA). NYLA filed an amicus brief in the case as did The Suffolk Cooperative Library System, the Library Trustees Association of New York, and the Long Island Library Resource Council.

"This sets us up nicely to work with state policy makers to get them to recognize that libraries deserve the same type of support and recognition that schools get," Borges said. "It recognizes libraries as educational institutions and librarians as educators."

Mary Ellen O'Connor, the president of the Library Trustees Association of New York, agreed that the ruling may enhance the value of libraries in the eyes of lawmakers.

"I was very happy that the decision ran in favor of the library because we are so undervalued in New York, and you can see that from the amount of money that gets cut from libraries every year by the legislature. So, it's a very good first step in really trying to get people to think differently about libraries," she said.

"We always say everybody loves the library, and they do, but loving it is one thing and understanding the education component of libraries is another thing," O'Connor said. "This decision brings peoples awareness level up so that they understand that education takes places in libraries, and I think if people understand the educational element of libraries that would definitely help at budget time," she said.

Since the decision is only by one of New York's supreme courts (there is a supreme court in each of New York's 62 counties) and not a federal court, Borges does not think the ruling will have implications beyond New York, but it, nonetheless, has a particular resonance because of growing efforts in places such as Los Angeles to redefine the role of librarians as something less than an educator.

"I don't think there have been a lot of court cases about the definition of libraries as an educational institution in the last ten or 20 years," said Dennis Fabiszak, the director of the East Hampton Library. "Either nobody has challenged it, or, with shrinking library budgets, libraries that have been put into a bad situation didn't have the resources to carry a dispute through to the end," he said.

Other libraries won't have to go through same fight
In East Hampton's case, the eight-year battle with the village's Zoning Board of Appeals cost nearly a half million dollars to fight, paid for through donations, Fabiszak said. The zoning board had refused in July 2010 to grant two variances and a permit for the expansion project, and it asserted that the library was subject to its jurisdiction because while it "may well be, for some purposes, defined and treated in the law as an educational institution, it should not be considered as such for zoning purposes nor under SEQRA [the state's environmental law]."

The library argued that its status as an institution chartered by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York entitled it to "the deferential treatment with respect to zoning requirements that educational and religious institutions have long enjoyed."

The court backed the library, saying it was chartered by the Board of Regents, thus ensuring that it is "accorded not-for-profit educational corporation status under Education Law 216-a." The court noted that "in addition to providing traditional library resources, it offers numerous instructional programs, classes, lectures and lessons, all of which are, unequivocally, educational in nature."

"The judge said it perfectly: libraries are an inherent public good," said Kevin Verbesey director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System. "It will save other libraries from having to go through this process," he said.

The decision will apply to all 756 public libraries in the state, as well as the state's 355 association libraries, all of which are chartered by the Board of Regents. They all are public libraries, but an association library is created by a membership association, while a public library is created by a municipality or the state legislature.

The 6800-square-foot expansion will now proceed since the village will not appeal the decision.

"Clarifying that the library is an educational institution makes it clear that libraries are exempt from the environmental law of New York if they are doing an expansion of less than 10,000 feet," Fabiszak said. "The fact that no other library will have to go through this process is very important," he said.

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