Message from CRL President Bernard Reilly - Cooperation and Trust

A recent World Bank publication opened with a business story that I found interesting in light of the recent news of accounting irregularities and malfeasance at some large American corporations.

In the 11th century the Maghribi traders of North Africa wanted to expand business across borders, all around the Mediterranean. Trade in each center was free of formal regulations and restrictions, and competitive, with many buyers and sellers negotiating prices through brokers, open-bid auctions, and direct dealings. Cross-border trade was also generally free of formal regulations and restrictions. But it was fraught with uncertainty about selling prices, the quality on arrival, and the possibility of theft. Only if merchants traveled with their goods to distant markets could they ensure the safe arrival and sale of their merchandise. Such risks and costs naturally limited trade.

So in all the major trading centers around the Mediterranean, the Maghribis set up overseas agents to represent their interests and exchange information about markets. Being from the same community, these agents were seen as trustworthy. And with fewer contractual problems, Maghribi merchants no longer needed to travel to ensure that they would not be cheated. Information flowed freely in this network bound by social ties.[1]

Two things in particular struck me about the story: the traders’ self-reliant solution of their problem (without intervention from government or other parties); and the reliance of this solution on the natural bonds occurring among the members of their own community. A lesson of the recent accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and other large “traders” is that laws, reporting standards, and even government oversight are not in themselves enough to ensure efficiency in market economies, let alone good corporate stewardship. More is needed to counteract the natural inclinations and self-interest of individual actors in a free market. Trust, i.e., the voluntary bonds and loyalties created between the members of close-knit communities, is also necessary.

This idea is not new to the development world. Foundations and other NGOs promoting sustainable economic growth have been hearing it for some time. In his 1995 book Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama asserts the importance of trust, or a shared commitment to a common good, to the well being of market economies.

Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of other members of the community . . .. Social capital is a capability that arises from the prevalence of trust in society or in certain parts of it.. . .[While] contract and self-interest are important sources of association, the most effective organizations are based on communities of shared ethical values. These communities do not require extensive contract and legal regulation of their relations because prior moral consensus gives members of the group a basis of mutual trust. [2]

In short, Fukuyama shows, associations based on mutual trust act as a check on the otherwise uninhibited workings of market forces and individual self-interest. The field of nature conservation offers some good examples of associations coalescing around common values to bring about greater good. In recent years organizations like the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy have had a pronounced impact upon government and industry’s management of natural resources.

The CRL community, i.e., the research libraries and universities of North America, is engaged in a particularly important enterprise: the development and management of knowledge resources for advanced research and teaching. In this enterprise the need for strong associations that enable preservation of traditional and electronic resources is increasing. The CLIR Task Force on the Artifact in Libraries, for instance, called for development of a coordinated national strategy for preservation of collections in their original format.[3] And in the digital realm it is clear that community-wide, even cross-community, cooperation will be necessary to enable the technical and administrative architectures required to maintain electronic resources over the long term.[4] Worsening economic conditions, moreover, have reduced the resources that individual libraries are able to devote to collection development and preservation, making cooperation a practical necessity.

Like the economy in general, the knowledge economy demands more than what the free market left to its own devices can deliver. Publishers, aggregators, and other content providers in the commercial sector can fulfill many of our libraries’ needs, particularly in the sale of core curriculum learning materials. But availability of research materials for advanced research, which are by definition infrequently used and scarce, cannot be left to the market. As with natural resources and the environment, free market forces foster not the “biodiversity” of knowledge resources that scholarship requires but homogeneity. In a sense, then, CRL is a conservancy that fosters diversity of knowledge resources essential to original scholarship and learning.Key to this enterprise is CRL’s governance. The Center is governed by the 92 major North American research libraries that are CRL voting members, a community united by a set of shared values and interests. These values and interests inform CRL operations throughout. James Simon’s report on the Cooperative African Microform Project (CAMP) in this issue of Focus, for instance, indicates how CRL provides a framework of administrative and fiscal support for the cooperative development and preservation of resources by African Studies specialists and bibliographers. The Center’s area studies microform projects (AMPs) help to meet such specialized needs in areas where resources at the local level are scarce.

To extend our reach we seek to form partnerships with other organizations. We undertake these with care, cautious not to compromise our mission or our accountability to the membership. For this reason the primary determinant of the value of the value of each partnership is the extent to which it makes available to CRL the capabilities and capacities necessary to advance the interests of our members. Both the Mellon-funded strategic initiatives and the NEH-funded ICON project stem from identified community needs and bring to bear on these needs the resources and abilities of like-minded parties. The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, with its support of the conference The New Dynamics and Economics of Cooperative Collection Development will enable us to draw upon the rich pool of expertise and experience in the community to shape the Center’s continued collection development.

We at CRL believe that these activities will augment the individual efforts of our members, and will counter some of the “free market” forces that work against the preservation of scholarly resources. Like the agents of the Maghribi traders we are at work in the marketplace of the larger knowledge economy furthering the interests of our community, the research libraries of North America.

[1] “Building Institutions: Complement, Innovate, Connect, and Compete” World Development Report 2002: Building Institutions for Markets (New York: Oxford University Press for the World Bank, 2002) page 3. A definitive account and analysis of the Maghribi traders is provided by Stanford University Economics professor Avner Greif in, “Contract Enforceability and Economic Institutions in Early Trade: the Maghribi Traders' Coalition” American Economic Review vol.83, no.3 (June, 1993) pp. 525-48.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: The Free Press, 1995) p. 26.

[3] Stephen G. Nichols and Abby Smith, The Evidence in Hand: the Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections (Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2001) p. 1.

[4] Daniel Greenstein and Jerry George, “Building a Library Service Network” CLIR Issues, no. 23 (September/October 2001) pp.1ff, and Donald Waters, “Good Archives Make Good Scholars: Reflections on Recent Steps Toward the Archiving of Digital Information” in The State of Digital Preservation: An International Perspective (Washington: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2002).