April 22, 2018

Money Still Talks!: ALA’s endowment must support its values | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIA few weeks ago several events converged to drive home to me the realization that problems of climate change, global warming, carbon emissions, and a fouled environment, already urgent and dangerous, were accelerating so fast that it’s already too late to correct them.

First, the well-known environmentalist and author Bill McKibben came to my hometown, Newport, NH, to receive the Sarah Josepha Hale Award, given annually to a New England author by the Friends of our local public library, the Richards Free Library.

That Sunday, October 5, the New York Times Magazine published Jeff Riedel’s “Waterworld,” the story of the slow destruction of Louisiana’s Mississippi Delta wetlands in part because of oil and gas industry exploration with excessive wells and pipelines.

That same Sunday my sister, Betsy, who lives in Burlington, VT, told me how that city, the largest in the state, now gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, water, and biomass.

In pleasant, unemotional tones, McKibben told us again how carbon emissions keep soaring, while donations from the fossil fuel industry have turned “one of our two political parties into climate deniers and the other into cowards.” McKibben asserted, as he has so often, that “power, not reason” is in charge and that for him “writing yet another story about the latest scientific findings seemed less and less useful.” It was an informative, activating, and yet depressing performance, for he also said he wasn’t sure we wouldn’t run out of time to solve the problem before the world faced disaster.

Riedel’s Times Magazine story deepened my sense of powerlessness, but Betsy’s report from Burlington showed that, at least, it is possible to light and even heat one cold city without fossil fuels. Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, put it this way: ‘‘It shows that we’re able to do it, and we’re able to do it cost effectively in a way that makes Vermonters really positioned well for the future.’’

Last year, I discussed some of this (“Money Talks,” Blatant Berry, LJ 7/13, p. 10). I raise the issue again now because, as McKibben said, we are running out of time, and, equally important, a great many of the great universities, religious denominations, and dozens of other institutions of our nation have recently decided to take a stand and divest themselves of endowment and other holdings in the fossil fuels industry, which has corrupted and polluted our politics, our media, and our world.

I expect and hope that the American Library Association (ALA) will do the same, even though it voted not to do so, because its endowment trustees see “increasing revenue” as their only job. That is a policy that is not only corrupt and immoral, but it opposes what may be the most crucial core value of our profession, protecting the uncorrupted flow of information. Those trustees must be required to recognize that with our money they must also defend the professional values of our association. It is obvious that the flow of information has been tainted by the fossil fuels industry.

So in the upcoming election for councilors and a new ALA president I plan to vote only for those candidates who support the divestment of stocks and other investments in fossil fuels and who will urge the trustees of the ALA endowment to do so as well.

As I said in July 2013, “We must not let the pursuit of profit erode our professional values.” That cause is more urgent today that it was then. I hope other librarians and ALA members will join in this effort.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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.



  1. Robert P Holley says:

    The following adds some details about the earlier divestment activities by ALA Council and the defeat of the divestment resolution. As John says above, “it voted not to do so, because its endowment trustees see “increasing revenue” as their only job.” As a member of Council, I listened to the extremely negative consequences of the proposed divestment. Later, however, I became curious about how the endowment trustees reached this decision and how they arrived at their figures.

    After many emails to a member of the Executive Board and to the ALA Treasurer, I learned that determining the potential losses was a two-step process. The first step was divesting the targeted energy stocks, I believe the so-called “dirty dozen,” and calculating how these stocks would have performed over the test period. The process didn’t end there because the second step was investing these funds in green energy stocks and calculating returns over the same period.

    The first step, divestment, would have actually not produced losses as significant as those reported by the endowment trustees to ALA Council because the green energy stocks did very poorly during the trial period. In other words, divestment was not the real financial problem but rather the reinvestment strategy. A better methodology might have been to calculate divestment losses or gains plus the loss or gain from the average portfolio change where the endowment trustees would have placed the funds made available by divestment.

    I strongly support this issue coming back to ALA Council with such revised figures.