Become a Founder of the National History Center!

Wm. Roger Louis, December 2004

Dear fellow members of the AHA:

NHCThe National History Center, created by the AHA in 2002, is entering its third year. In the past several months more than a hundred benefactors have pledged their support, and many of them have become Founders of the National History Center or contributors to a fund to further its purpose. The center now has its own planning committee and board of trustees (and even its own logo).

This is, therefore, a good juncture to describe the present activities of the center and also briefly to recapitulate its history—especially for new readers of Perspectives. By doing so, I hope to persuade you as well as others to join the founders or to lend support in whatever way you can. The center needs the moral as well as the financial assistance of as many AHA members and other well-wishers as possible.

The National History Center is already acquiring the various attributes of a center and has begun to launch programs even as we continue to search for a physical home. As those who have perused the program for the 2005 annual meeting will be aware, the center is sponsoring several special sessions at Seattle. The National History Center will also hold an open forum on Friday, January 7, 2005, from 4:45 to 5:45 p.m. (in the Sheraton’s Suite 428), followed by a reception (in Suite 416). The members of the planning committee look forward to discussing the center’s plans and projects with the audience at this forum.

One of our initiatives is a series of books on reinterpreting history. Meant for the general reader as well as historians and students, this series will be published by Oxford University Press. Each volume will pursue a historiographical theme, discussing how historical issues are reassessed over time. The initial three volumes will have their origins in papers presented at AHA annual meetings. The first—based on a session from last year’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.—will focus on human rights and will be edited by Akira Iriye. The other two proposed volumes will be derived from sessions held in Seattle and will be edited by Jack Greene and Joseph Miller, the respective session chairs.

This is not all. During 2005 the center will implement three additional programs. The first is a series of summer workshops intended to help historians of science, technology, and industry who are working with new technologies for communicating scholarship. These workshops, titled “Doing Digital History,” will be co-sponsored with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with the financial support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

We have also begun developing a series of seminars for legislators and their staff that will bring one or more historians to Washington to discuss the historical context of current issues and decisions that come before the U.S. Congress. Many science and social science disciplines offer this kind of programming to policymakers in Washington. It is time history joined them.
Finally we plan to cosponsor—with the Organization of American Historians and the National Council for the Social Studies—a set of conferences on history education policy. There has been enormous public interest and investment in history at the elementary and secondary level over the past decade. We think it is time for an assessment of how well these programs are working and how they might be informed by new research on history teaching and learning as well as by comparison with similar history teaching reform efforts abroad. These conferences will be aimed at improving history education and will involve legislators, government administrators and policymakers, journalists, and, not least, historians and history teachers.

Can the AHA not undertake all these programs itself, you might ask. As a membership organization, the AHA is often constrained in what it can do. The center, on the other hand, can take the initiative in certain areas even while it furthers the AHA’s own mission. Improvement of history education in schools is an example. The National History Center could become more active in this area, for instance, by developing a program to evaluate history textbooks.

One of the goals of the center’s planning committee has always been to establish a physical home for the center, where historians, not least those from other countries, can meet for study and discussion, and where the public can come for lectures and seminars. At one point we had hoped to acquire a building on Capitol Hill from the Library of Congress as the center’s home. This project fell through for a variety of reasons. So our quest for a permanent home continues. Our work with architects as we looked at the library’s building gave us a good sense of what we need and the costs involved. Our work with fundraisers has made one thing quite clear: the idea of a national history center resonates strongly with the American public, but to succeed in a national fundraising campaign, we need first to demonstrate commitment to the center among historians themselves.

I am myself committed to the center’s creation because I believe that members of the AHA as well as historians throughout the world would immensely benefit from a national center in Washington, D.C., which is devoted to history. But such a center can do more than serve the needs of historians. It can also become a forum in which historians can exchange ideas not only with legislators and other policymakers but also with those dealing with historical issues in media old and new. Indeed, the National History Center will enable historians to have the public role that the AHA founders intended. We are now on the verge of more fully realizing that intention.

To date we have raised over $280,000, including a commitment from the AHA of $30,000 and from supporters willing to pledge $1,000 a year for three years. Such a pledge of $3,000 establishes the donor as a Founder of the National History Center. You will see from the list of founders (on the facing page) that it includes many of the leading historians in the country. I hope that you will join them. But if, for any reason, you feel that $3,000 is too large an amount to pledge at this moment, even for such a worthy cause, do not turn away entirely. We need your moral as well as material support, and we will welcome gifts in any amount. Members wishing to support the National History Center should contact Miriam Hauss at 202-544-2422, ext. 103.

I hope you’ll recall my articles in previous issues of Perspectives (of February 2003 and October 2002, in particular) about the visionary dreams of J. Franklin Jameson and other leaders of the AHA over the past century about creating a national center for history. I believe wholeheartedly that we can make the dream of the National History Center a reality, and that we can now take a significant step toward the fulfillment of a noble aspiration. This is a historic cause. Join me in becoming a Founder of the National History Center or lend your support—moral, intellectual, and material—in whatever way you can.

Sincerely yours,

Wm. Roger Louis
AHA President for 2001
Chairman, National History Center Planning Committee