The inside story of the “Very, Very Small Library” exemption

MuckRock reader resolves the non-response of tiny South Chatham Public Library

Written by Shawn Musgrave
Edited by Michael Morisy

In July, the South Chatham Public Library begged off answering our public records request on the basis that it is a “very, very small library” with limited staff. Here’s their letter:

A bit of digging by one of our readers has revealed that the library is, in fact, immune from records requests, but not due to its size. Despite its name, the South Chatham Public Library is not a public library in the typical sense.

From MuckRock subscriber Katharine Webster:

I was in South Chatham three weeks ago and went to that library one of the two afternoons a week that they’re open to do further research. FYI, they are NOT a public library, even though the word “public” is in their name. They are a private corporation. The tiny, one-room building sits on church land and was built with privately raised funds.

Webster gleaned further details about the library from pamphlets, which outlined its evolution from its founding in 1874 as the “Pilgrim Library.” A humble institution from the start, the library moved from a few locked cupboards to the South Chatham Village Hall to its own building in 1934. Despite its name, the library has never been a true public library subject to the Massachusetts public records law, since its funding comes primarily from an endowment and corporate grants. In fact, South Chatham explicitly voted down at least one proposal for the library to be taken over by town government.

Some highlights from the pamphlets, courtesy of Webster:

“It was also during one very difficult time that the Pilgrim Library made a motion to offer itself to the Chatham Library, but the vote was defeated.”

“In 1899 the name was changed to the South Chatham Public Library, as it was learned a library in Truro [also on Cape Cod] was using the name ‘Pilgrim.’”

“In 1908 some relief was felt when the Town of Chatham made its first appropriation in the amount of $25.”

“One significant event in 1975 was the library’s incorporation.”

“The rules of most libraries don’t apply here. There are no cards, and patrons are not asked to whisper. On the contrary, there is usually a lively conversation taking place as neighbors stop in to gossip, share their news and discuss the latest best-seller. The South Chatham Library welcomes old friends and new to come in, enjoy the books and this spirit of hospitality.”

So ends MuckRock’s apparently misguided attempts to secure documents from the South Chatham Public Library. As Ms. Webster so aptly pointed out, in light of the library’s humble budgetary support from the town coffers, “The fact that the library receives public funds does not make it a public library, any more than the fact that Planned Parenthood receives public funds to provide certain services to low-income women makes Planned Parenthood a government entity.”