September 26, 2005
FROM: Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director
The staff of the Committee on Open Government is authorized to issue advisory opinions. The ensuing staff advisory opinion is based solely upon the facts presented in your correspondence.
As you are aware, I have received your inquiry concerning the status of the New York Public Library under the Freedom of Information Law. Please accept my apologies for the delay in response.
By way of background, the Freedom of Information Law is applicable to agency records, and §86(3) of that statute defines the term "agency" to mean:
"any state or municipal department, board, bureau, division, commission, committee, public authority, public corporation, council, office of other governmental entity performing a governmental or proprietary function for the state or any one or more municipalities thereof, except the judiciary or the state legislature."
Based on the foregoing, the Freedom of Information Law generally applies to records maintained by governmental entities.
Second, in conjunction with §253 of the Education Law and the judicial interpretation concerning that and related provisions, I believe that a distinction may be made between a public library and an association or free association library. The former would in my view be subject to the Freedom of Information Law, while the latter would not. Subdivision (2) of §253 states that:
"The term 'public' library as used in this chapter shall be construed to mean a library, other than professional, technical or public school library, established for free purposes by official action of a municipality or district or the legislature, where the whole interests belong to the public; the term 'association' library shall be construed to mean a library established and controlled, in whole or in part, by a group of private individuals operating as an association, close corporation or as trustees under the provisions of a will or deed of trust; and the term 'free' as applied to a library shall be construed to mean a library maintained for the benefit and free use on equal terms of all the people of the community in which the library is located."
The leading decision concerning the issue was rendered by the Appellate Division in French v. Board of Education, in which the Court stated that:
"In view of the definition of a free association library contained in section 253 of the Education Law, it is clear that although such a library performs a valuable public service, it is nevertheless a private organization, and not a public corporation. (See 6 Opns St Comp, 1950, p 253.) Nor can it be described as a 'subordinate governmental agency' or a 'political subdivision'. (see 1 Opns St Comp, 1945, p 487.) It is a private corporation, chartered by the Board of Regents. (See 1961 Opns Atty Gen 105.) As such, it is not within the purview of section 101 of the General Municipal Law and we hold that under the circumstances it was proper to seek unitary bids for construction of the project as a whole. Cases and authorities cited by petitioner are inapposite, as they plainly refer to public, rather than free association libraries, and hence, in actuality, amplify the clear distinction between the two types of library organizations" [see attached, 72 AD 2d 196, 198-199 (1980); emphasis added by the court].
In my opinion, the language offered by the court clearly provides a basis for distinguishing between an association or free association library as opposed to a public library. For purposes of applying the Freedom of Information Law, I do not believe that an association library, a private non-governmental entity, would be subject to that statute; contrarily, a public library, which is established by government and "belong[s] to the public" [Education Law, §253(2)] would be subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
Having reviewed a variety of information on the New York Public Library’s website, <www.nypl.org>, it is clear that that entity is a private, not-for-profit institution. It was founded in 1895 by the Astor, Lenox and Tilden foundations to provide "private philanthropy for the public good." That being so, I do not believe that it is subject to the Freedom of Information Law.
It is noted that confusion concerning the application of the Freedom of Information Law to non-governmental libraries open to the public has arisen in several instances, perhaps because its companion statute, the Open Meetings Law, is applicable to meetings of their boards of trustees. The Open Meetings Law, which is codified as Article 7 of the Public Officers Law, is applicable to public and association libraries due to direction provided in the Education Law. Specifically, §260-a of the Education Law states in relevant part that:
"Every meeting, including a special district meeting, of a board of trustees of a public library system, cooperative library system, public library or free association library, including every committee meeting and subcommittee meeting of any such board of trustees in cities having a population of one million or more, shall be open to the general public. Such meetings shall be held in conformity with and in pursuance to the provisions of article seven of the public officers law."
Again, since Article 7 of the Public Officers Law is the Open Meetings Law, meetings of boards of trustees of various libraries must be conducted in accordance with that statute, even though the records of those entities fall beyond the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law.
I hope that the foregoing serves to clarify your understanding of the matter and that I have been of assistance.
cc: Director, New York Public Library