That titular truism is even more accurate during hard times; the muzzling and corrupting impact of the almighty dollar on the flow of information is magnified in a weak economy. Those with an agenda use their money to influence our politics, our ideology, and our lifestyles and social interactions. We see this sway not only in election campaigns but in the media as they provide our entertainment and report our news. Even the once sacrosanct public media are afflicted with influences that tend to quiet their critique and discussion if it might affect their donors, funding agencies, trustees, and advertisers.
As with librarianship, in which intellectual freedom and the unadulterated flow of information are core values, the corrupting impact of the scarcity of money is apparent. Some of the young, new librarians we would normally expect to lead active movements for professional change remain muted on current issues as they struggle to find and land jobs in our crowded field.
In our economic cycles, public sector institutions usually feel the results of a failing economy later than private enterprises. As a result, in the slow processes of recovery from hard times, public institutions come last.
Library administrators, always faced with chronic funding issues, find their budgets continuing to shrink even while the private sector begins to recover. Many of them who would normally push for innovations and work to reposition their libraries for a very different new society hold back and stick to more traditional models in order not to upset or frighten funders, politicians, and taxpayers.
Many of our professional organizations, facing reduced revenues and declining membership and attendance at their events, focus their services and activities on increasing revenue. They eschew any action or activity that would increase costs.
Recently, some members of the American Library Association (ALA) Council decided to push the association to divest all holdings from its endowment in the fossil fuel industry and invest in renewable energy initiatives instead. Before the voting, which was to take place at the ALA annual conference last month in Chicago, a report was requested and received from the ALA endowment trustees.
Those trustees unanimously opposed the resolution because “it will severely limit the Trustees’ primary responsibility of maximizing investment returns.” The report, which is available as ALA CD (Council Document) 16.2 Annual Conference 2012–2013, goes on to list many objections from the endowment trustees. They concluded that to do as proposed would mean missed opportunities, reduced flexibility for the trustees, and an investment in renewable energy that is more risky, “very expensive,” and has had poor performance so far.
I am not comfortable with an ALA endowment policy that dictates that the only purpose of its trustees and their investments is to increase revenue. I am sure one could make a lot of money investing in firms that make weapons, even weapons of mass destruction; products that poison the environment; drugs that are dangerous and/or addictive; or financial institutions that profit from bad mortgages.
An endowment fund that belongs to a library organization ought to at least adhere, as a matter of policy, to the fundamental core value of that association. For those of us who are members of ALA and librarianship that core value is to protect and defend the uncorrupted flow of free information.
I am torn by this discussion, because I feel a deep professional debt to ALA. Its staff and services have done a great deal for me and my career, and I feel an obligation to repay that debt. The report of the ALA endowment trustees will make that remuneration more difficult. I cannot trust in an endowment governed by those whose only purpose is to make money, regardless of where they must invest in order to do so.
I need to find a way to put whatever money I can first behind the values in which I believe and only then into investments I feel will bring the greatest return. When that return trumps our values, I refuse to invest. I hope librarians under the banner of ALA will do the same. We must not let the pursuit of profit erode our professional values.
John N. Berry III