October 19, 2014

Money Talks! | Blatant Berry

DSC1770 300x200 Money Talks! | Blatant BerryThat 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
Editor-at-Large

john berry signature Money Talks! | Blatant Berry

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John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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Comments

  1. Jim Schneider says:

    I completely agree that maximum profit should not be the only factor in investments, but then how do you decide where to go? You rightly state that the free flow of information is a core value of our profession, but how does that relate to fossil fuels? I don’t want investments in the abortion industry, but that is my personal belief, not professional principle. Off the top of my head, the only industry that I think the ALA should not have investments in would be publishing, and maybe journalism, to safeguard our objectivity, both real and perceived. I also find investment in armaments distasteful, but I can’t see that as related to librarianship.

    • I can’t disagree with the high ideals and fundamental purpose of librarianship, but in the final analysis, ALA is just another business, and the purpose of business is to make money while marketing a product. Is librarianship that product? I often wonder.

    • Elizabeth Weinrich says:

      I agree with you Jim. Since when does investment in fossil fuels have anything to do with upholding the ideals of librarianship? It sounds like Berry is pushing his own values on the entire profession.

  2. Rachel P. says:

    “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.”–John N. Berry III

    As one who is both young and very new to the field (still in school), I do not feel unable to be active in current issues. If anything does interfere with my being active, it is time, which is perhaps what was meant by “struggle to find and land jobs.” That is certainly a time-consuming endeavor.

    Though there may not be many young librarians taking on the role of super heroes, combatting the evil of the almighty dollar, there are certainly a few who are interested in being involved. As part of the class I’m in currently we are required to complete a leadership project. This could be anything from joining listservs and committees to getting involved in projects at work or through politics in some way. The project has nudged me into the middle of this field, without a safety net, but has led me to the very issues spoken of in this article.

    It may be my youth or naiveté speaking, but I for one hope I never become so complacent in my career that I stop trying to be innovative, especially if budget is an issue. Success is not continuing to do the same things over and over because they work well enough, but trying new things in the face of adversity and seeing them pay off.

    As far as the trustees opposing the resolution goes, it makes sense that ALA would want to continue endeavors that make it money. However, if ALA is just another business, doesn’t one have to keep in mind that sometimes in business one must take risks in order to get a higher payoff? If the end-goal (whether it is viewed as good or bad) is to make money, shouldn’t ALA invest in renewable energy, which is something new, popular, and (not least) beneficial to all humanity?

  3. “Many of our professional organizations, facing reduced revenues and declining membership and attendance at their events, focus their services and activities on increasing revenue.” Thank you for bringing up this point. Increasing revenue is certainly not as noble as advocating for literacy, lifelong-learning, libraries, and librarians!

  4. Why is it that only young librarians are expected to be activists and stick their necks out? Where is the old guard who are often far more protected than their younger counterparts due to seniority?

    I’m not a believer in divesting – it takes you out of the conversation and removes your vote.

    However, I do believe that the ALA, and many organizations, seem to ignore the risk of loss of contributions when making their investment choices. If the rank and file stops giving after a decree like this, they will change be forced to react to it. That said, I suspect much of the rank and file is unaware this choice was made and a big chunk of those that know probably don’t care.

    Given the ubiquitous use of fossil fuels by the majority of publicly traded companies, is it even possible to truly divest?