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Are librarians loony? The odds of their being sane are high if you encounter them in the wilds of your local library. But alas, their national leadership, as so often happens with national associations, has long been captured by the loony left.

My Capital Research Center colleague Fred Lucas provides a thorough report in the December issue of Organization Trends, which includes such pathetic stories as this one (based on reporting by the excellent, non-conservative author Nat Hentoff):

Library associations of the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland advocated for the release of 65 Cuban librarians and dissidents who made books available that were not approved by the Cuban libraries. Cuban judges ordered the “incineration” of the prisoners’ libraries, which contained the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm.       The Polish Library Association issued a statement, “The actions of the Cuban authorities relate to the worst traditions of repressing the freedom of thought and expression.” The Organization of American States, Amnesty International, and Freedom House called for the release of the prisoners. Meanwhile, the ALA has referred to the political prisoners as “so-called librarians.”       The rank and file members of ALA—70 percent in a January 2006 online survey published in American Libraries Direct—said “Yes” when asked, “Should ALA Council pass a resolution condemning the Cuban government for its imprisonment of dissident ‘independent librarians’?” But the ALA Council opposed resolutions introduced and refused to post the matter on the “Book Burning in the 21st Century” page of the group’s website.

This kind of intellectual take-over of a national group is a disease of the nonprofit sector so common that even the Southern Baptists have experienced it. This year Dr. Richard Land will retire after a quarter-century’s service as the Baptists’ spokesman on political and ethical issues (officially, he is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission). He’s widely known for his social conservatism, but did you know that when he began his current job, he replaced a man of the left who had helped found the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights in 1973 – a position not exactly in tune with most of America’s 1973 Baptists.

The Philanthropy Angle

Lucas’s essay also brings to mind another common phenomenon – or disorder – of the tax-exempt world: the “root cause” syndrome. William Schambra, head of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, reminds me that

one of the first things that the professional staff working for Andrew Carnegie did, once it pried the money loose from Andrew’s hands, was to try to cancel any further funding of actual libraries, and put the money instead toward “library science.” Given their progressive proclivities, I suppose this would be considered getting at the “root cause” of illiteracy, rather than “putting on charitable Band-aids” by providing people with, you know, books.

As Schambra loves to remind philanthropoids, the chimera of a social ill’s “root cause,” chased without regard to the needs of actual human beings, is the cause of much mischief and wasted funding. And just as Carnegie staffers looked down their nose at merely providing people with books, so philanthropoids have often disdained clothing the naked or feeding the hungry, because those activities are just “Band-aids” that don't get at the supposed “root causes” of poverty. (Of course, chasing “root causes” does allow philanthropoids to view themselves as an exalted class.) For a classic Schambra essay on the phenomenon, go here.

For the story of Carnegie staffers and trustees abandoning the founder's donor intent, which was to support community libraries, in favor of experts' doling out “library science” to the swinish multitudes, read chapter one, “Liberal Commitments,” in Ellen Condliffe Lagemann's The Politics of Knowledge: The Carnegie Corporation, Philanthropy, and Public Policy.

One lone trustee objected to the institution's betrayal of Andrew Carnegie. As Lagemann reports, a Cornell professor presented to the board a proposal that it focus, not on building libraries, but on spreading library science, which would lead to "advancing popular intellectual progress" (read: "smartening up the slack-jawed yokels"). The lonely dissenter, trustee James Bertram, argued that if the board consented to this recommendation, it

would contravene Carnegie's clear and known wish "to give libraries to communities and [to] leave the communities absolutely free to manage them any way they might see fit."

Because Bertram spoke the truth, the trustees were too ashamed to accept the professor's recommendation publicly, but the Cornellian was quietly assured the Carnegie Corporation (a philanthropic, not business corporation) would follow the higher path proposed to it. And so the board used the pretext of World War I to suspend library-building grants and never resumed them.

Instead, it supported professionally trained, career-motivated experts, usually men, rather than "benevolently inclined, often moralistically motivated, 'amateur' women." Whereas Carnegie himself, a self-taught man, had wanted library patrons to see themselves as "joint proprietors" of the local community institutions he was seeding, the professor "envisioned library readers becoming 'clients' of the expert librarians they would hire."

The top-down, expert-run, centrally planned view of the world that Carnegie's usurpers possessed certainly sounds familiar, doesn't it? Here's one last quotation from Lagemann's 1983 book, which also sounds like today's news. The professor's recommendation

was as representative of "progressive" thought as Carnegie's speeches were of an earlier, laissez-faire liberalism.... [The recommendation] helped move [the Carnegie Corporation] out of alignment with a nineteenth-century conception of policy-making and into alignment with a conception more widely held in the twentieth century -- from a belief in positive but loosely coupled associations between the collective good or national destiny, the free exercise of individual initiative, and the absence of strong, central executive power, to a belief in expert decision-making and leadership, combined with the wide and deliberate transmission of expertise from "the best men" to "the people."

Ordinary Americans, in short, just can't improve themselves on their own initiative, and local communities can't advance intellectual progress by maintaining a library for those ordinary folks. You need a well-paid expert's backside warming a chair in a building in a major East Coast metropolis to do that (and it's best to pay that backside with the interest off a fortune amassed by an ordinary American who improved himself through his own hard work and entrepreneurship).

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