Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Coming Attraction: Credit Union History Since 1970

Although Ian MacPherson's 1999 book on the development of the global credit union movement partially bridges the gap, one of the most gaping holes in contemporary credit union historiography has been the lack of a synthetic treatment of the American movement's recent history. While Moody & Fite's The Credit Union Movement remains an absolutely vital resource, an enormous amount has happened since the last edition was released in 1984 that has the potential to shine new interpretive light on the whole sweep of the movement's development.

One of the benefits of a synthetic work of history is that it organizes the jumble of changes that characterize its subject's development into a coherent, meaningful narrative structure. While people often enter into ferocious debates about the exact parameters of that structure, having some sort of understanding of the mechanisms by which the world came to exist in its current form is a powerful aid to decision-making. Without such a framework, it is impossible to learn from the past beyond the scope of simple personal experience. As George Santayana put it more than a century ago, "when experience is not retained ... infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As such, as the years have accumulated since the publication of Moody and Fite's landmark study, the lack of a follow-up work has left a critical and growing portion of the credit union story inaccessible to the vast majority of credit union people who would benefit from understanding the struggles of their forebears. Fortunately, this will not be the case much longer. Since the 2009 publication of his historical fiction novel, The Credit Union Lady, which traces three generations of a credit union family in Wisconsin, Paul Thompson has been hard at work on the tentatively titled The Modern Credit Union Movement, 1970-2010. Though currently in the final stage of editing (Thompson hopes to have it in print by the early summer), he was nice enough to send me an advanced draft for perusal, and I was pleased with what I found.

Drawing on his decades of personal experience working in the credit union movement, a variety of documentary sources, and personal interviews, the current version of Thompson's book fills in many of the most the current historiography's most obvious holes. Whether discussing the rise of the community credit union movement, the on-again, off-again political war with the banks, the movement's delicate relationship with the National Credit Union Administration, or a wide diversity of other issues, Thompson's book offers fascinating anecdotes and useful lessons that demystify the origins of many of the contemporary movement's practices and institutions. Though I plan on cranking out a full review when The Modern Credit Union Movement goes to press, it is already clear that it will be a must-read for all credit union leaders, whether volunteer or professional.


  1. That's great news. It is amazing how documenting the past will change the future. When you wrote, "Thompson's book offers fascinating anecdotes and useful lessons that demystify the origins of many of the contemporary movement's practices and institutions," I couldn't help but think about what Eric S. Raymond said many years after his publication of the Cathedral and the Bazaar.

    "In retrospect, lacking that theory and that language hampered us in two ways. First: we couldn't think systematically about how to improve our own methods. Second: we couldn't explain or sell the method to anyone else... So I wrote down what I had seen, framed as a narrative and with appropriately vivid metaphors to describe the logic that could be deduced behind the customs."
    From Revenge of the Hackers.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. "Credit Union History Since 1970"

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