Library Response to THREE CUPS OF TEA Scandal

Questions about the truth of Greg Mortenson’s books and his handling of his charity continue to roil in the press in the wake of a 60 Minutes investigation. The AP reports that Montana’s attorney general is now looking in to the charity, which is headquartered in Bozeman. Publisher Viking is also investigating the book.

On school librarian listservs, many are vigorously defending Mortenson. As one librarian put it,

I can tell you this: our school did an all-school read this year using the Three Cups book. I wanted our students to see how important education is in other parts of the world and to realize how we take it for granted here. This project would not have been possible without the generous donation from the CAI of 650 books totally FREE. I know that many other schools and libraries have also received such donations.

Author John Krakauer, who contributed money to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has published his own 89-page inquiry [downloadable free through today. After that, it can be purchased through Amazon’s Kindle Singles]. According to Krakauer, books donated to programs like the one at the above school library are bought at retail by the CAI from outlets that report to bestseller lists. As a result, Mortenson receives a royalty on each book and the sales help to boost best seller list rankings.

If the donated books are $16 paperbacks, that is $10,400 of the CAI’s money literally donated to the school. I doubt that the people who gave money to Mortenson’s cause would be happy to hear their money went to this, rather than to building schools and educating those without resources.

Librarians who have upcoming programs based on the books are left in a sticky situation. They aren’t the only ones; the University of Louisville had just announced plans to present Mortenson with an education award and are left wondering whether to go ahead with it. Officials told the local newspaper that they hope “the reports are unfounded, but will watch closely as the situation unfolds.”

Should libraries cancel upcoming programs? Given the ongoing investigations, it may be premature to do so now. And, this does offer the opportunity for a rich discussion of responsibility and accountability.

What about withdrawing the books? I think most of us would agree that access gives the reading public an opportunity to consider all the information and draw their own conclusions. For children’s selectors there is the further issue of the spin-offs. The middle-grade adaptation and the picture book are both simplistic retellings and perhaps selectors should just pass until the smoke clears.

2 Responses to “Library Response to THREE CUPS OF TEA Scandal”

  1. Amy Says:

    Another interesting question would be how the books were purchased. If, as has been alleged, CAI bought the books retail and THEN donated them, Mortenson would be getting a cut of the book sales plus boosting his book sales. I can only look at such a donation as a TRUE donation if the books were bought wholesale and then donated. And, in any event, you pointed out that the money could have better been spent actually building schools rather than selling the author’s book.

  2. Maggie Says:

    We’ve had audio, downloadable, and print versions of the retellings in our children’s collections for over a year. It’s too late to delay a decision to purchase. We are watching the outcome of the discussion but doubt we would withdraw the books unless there is conclusive evidence they are untrue.