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.

This impression is further suggested by the fact that his treatment of the movement's "big picture" history contains some sloppy factual inaccuracies. For instance, when discussing the origins of Edward Filene's patronage of the credit union movement, Walters claims that he "became convinced that the [credit union] concept could work in the United States, and he suggested to Franklin D. Roosevelt that cooperative banks be set up in the Philippines."1 Filene did, in fact, advocate for the creation of credit unions in the Philippines, but it was to President Theodore Roosevelt (who served more than two decades before FDR took office).2 This mistake was apparent to me because I'm familiar with the national movement's history, but I know next to nothing about the credit union movement in Texas. As such, despite its well written narrative, People Helping People could be rife with inaccuracies but, without footnotes to guide us to the sources from which Walters gleaned his information, it is impossible to know for sure what is valid and what is mistaken.

Another issue that somewhat hobbles People Helping People is its author's obvious affinity for his subject. Now, the time is long past when historians are expected to be simply the objective recorders of past events; we all bring agendas and unique perspectives to our work, and the most we can be expected to do is to openly acknowledge them and work to construct the most complete possible understanding of the subject at hand. However, on a few topics, Walters' desire to craft a positive, almost triumphalist narrative of the Texas Credit Union League's history leads him to neglect some important dynamics.

The most egregious example of this can be found in his discussion of the long-running skirmishes between credit unions and banks concerning the former's tax-exempt status. This conflict appears again and again in the second half of the book, yet Walters never delves deeply into the nature of the dynamics that drove it. His entire discussion focuses on the movement's defensive responses to such attacks, while never really dissecting who in the banking industry initiated them, why they were undertaken, and how they changed over time. Instead, Walters simply assumes that the banks didn't want competitors, and that the nature of the attacks was fundamentally the same whether they were happening in the 1960s or the 2000s. Thus, instead of cultivating a rich understanding of the complexities of the historical development of the tension between bankers and credit unionists, People Helping People leaves the reader with an impression of the banker's side of the conflict that borders on caricature. While such cartoonish images are certainly gratifying to the credit unionist ego, they do little to prepare members of the contemporary movement for future battles by familiarizing them with the lessons of the past.

1 comment:

  1. Footnotes über alles, as we say in my wing of history.