Monday, May 16, 2011

From Grad Student to Freelance Credit Union Historian!

Since I completed my very last masters program related responsibility today, I figured it is as good a time as any to announce my intention to try and make a career as a freelance credit union historian. I am deeply convinced that much of the credit union story has yet to be told, and that a great deal of good might come from its telling. As such, despite the risks involved in attempting to make a life as an independent academic, I'm excited to have the opportunity to attempt to make it work.

To kick off this new journey, I will be undertaking an historical project for the Association of Vermont Credit Unions. The goal will be to create an on-line history of the Vermont movement that is comprehensive while, at the same time, an accessible introduction to its legacy aimed at credit union staff, volunteers, members, and the public at large. Once completed, my hope is that this resource will help orient credit union people in Vermont to the debates, traditions, and choices that have shaped the contemporary movement, and that it will aid them in taking the lessons of the past more fully into account when making the decisions that will determine the future of credit unionism.

Additionally, I hope to begin work on a biographical piece about Roy F. Bergengren. Any understanding of the early American credit union movement that does not fully take into account the importance of this dynamic organizer and philosopher would be profoundly deficient, and yet there exists no comprehensive introduction to his life and thought. Though I'm not sure what scale or form such biographical work will ultimately take (long article? book? website?), I've decided to develop a research program that will hopefully culminate in a resource which will be of use to anyone who is curious about Bergengren.

As such, the content of Credit Union History over the next few months will likely be a reflection of these projects: lots of Vermont, and lots of Bergengren (and if I can combine the two, so much the better!). However, I will still try to post the occasional non-Bergengren book review or philosophically oriented essay and, as always, I encourage readers to submit their own relevant writings. This is an exciting new step, and hopefully the next few months will be good ones for credit union history!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Book Review: CUNA Emerges by Roy F. Bergengren

Written shortly after the formation of the Credit Union National Association, CUNA Emerges, by Roy F. Bergengren, is a truly essential text for students of the early credit union movement. Intended as an introduction to the theory and practice of credit unionism, Bergengren's book offers a comprehensive window into the ideas and general practices that characterized the movement in the mid-1930s. Along the way, he offers numerous insights into the nature of the philosophy that underpinned credit unionism, as well as observations on issues that the movement has continued to wrestle with to this day.

First and foremost, this book is of truly incomparable value to anyone doing primary research on early American credit unions (i.e., pre-1970s); in fact, for anyone considering such a project, I would strongly recommend consulting it before digging into the archives. Without the benefit of this book, my earliest archival work had a steep learning curve, as I only gradually, and in a piecemeal fashion, came to understand the full significance of the musty documents that had been excavated from a credit union's supply cabinet.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Coming Micro-Ownership Revolution

In the more than two centuries since the beginning of the radical transformation of economic life that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism, one of the most interesting trends has been the changing nature of the forms through which people have engaged in economic activities. Before the industrial revolution, an artisanal mode of production predominated, with many small work-shops producing the goods required by the largely agrarian economy. At first glance, such the existence of many small firms would suggest a highly competitive economy; however this was not the case. Rather, the high cost of transporting goods created by primitive transportation networks, the risk of brigands, etc., meant that, rather than a single integrated economy, there existed many small economies between which only low-bulk, high-value goods (such as spices) were exchanged. In this situation, workshops were almost universally owned locally, since the cost of monitoring an agent in a distant city would be prohibitively high (the exception being those in the aforementioned low-bulk, high-value businesses, but they also helped ensure the loyalty of distant agents by using family members).

However, the advent of the 19th century transportation and communication revolutions, which brought better roads, canals, steamships, railroads, and telegraphs into widespread use, changed the game. The many local markets became increasingly integrated, and the prices of commodities converged over the course of the century. These changes also led to radical shifts in how firms were both run and owned. With huge, growing markets at their disposal, firms could, as Chandler describes in his brilliant book Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism, drastically reduce the unit cost of many products by engaging in capital-intensive mass production. However, in order to fully take advantage of such available efficiencies, firms needed to mobilize amounts of capital beyond the resources of almost any individual or family. As a result of this problem, the "managerial firm" emerged as the dominant model in many industries by the end of the 19th century. Where, previously, the owner of a business was generally involved with its operations, managerial firms were characterized by a separation of ownership and management (which began to be undertaken by salaried professionals).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: People Helping People by Edward M. Walters

As its title suggests, Edward M. Walters' 2009 book entitled People Helping People: 75 Years of the Texas Credit Union League  traces the development of the Lone Star State's co-operative banking movement from its roots in that region's populist traditions up to the financial crisis of 2008. Clearly written, effectively structured, and jargon-free, the book's value lies in it being a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the movement for Texan credit union people. By weaving together the narratives of credit unionism's growth and development on both the national and state levels (and supplementing this story with numerous biographical sketches and old photographs), People Helping People is undoubtedly a very effective tool for orienting new credit union employees and volunteers to their organizations' historical context.

That said, Walters' book is problematic in a number of ways when viewed as a work of history. The first and most obvious issue lies in his total failure to cite his sources. Despite including many quotations and anecdotes, the book does not contain a single footnote, or even a bibliography. This important omission might have been excusable had People Helping People been written by a credit union enthusiast with limited familiarity with the conventions of historical writing. Walters, however, not only holds a PhD in history, but also has an MA in librarianship from the University of Chicago. With such credentials, one would expect him to appreciate the importance of writing in a manner that facilitates the verification of one's work by other scholars. Instead, Dr. Walters seems to expect the reader to unquestioningly accept his version of things. While that assumption might be fair in the case of a new credit union employee who picks up the book the better understand his or her employer, it means that People Helping People's contribution to the body of credit union historiography is of questionable validity.