From the From the Executive Director column of the February 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

The Beckoning Horizon: New Challenges for the AHA in the Digital Age

James Grossman, February 2012

Since its founding in 1884, the American Historical Association has been a hub for historical scholarship, establishing academic standards of excellence while enabling innovation in the teaching, publishing, and public discussion of history. More than a century later, the digital revolution has made possible new modes of communication and research that scholarly societies must now adapt and employ if they are to thrive in this new environment.

One need not venture far from our traditional mission to scan the beckoning horizon. The possibilities are attractive indeed. Consider the AHA's central place in the ecosystem of historical work in the United States: scholarly communication, advocacy, and standards of professional conduct. These broad terrains of activity have expanded in recent years, as digital technologies have reshaped the ways in which scholars communicate (and the work we publish); assembled new spaces for advocacy while raising new issues; and expanded the realms of professional conduct itself as historians widen the scope of historical practice.

The opportunities are attractive; the challenges daunting. First among them: the business model. Revenues from membership dues, annual conferences, and publications (chiefly institutional journal subscriptions) have traditionally funded the work of the AHA, as they do for other learned societies. But digital technologies now provide university-based scholars with free online access to publications, and increasingly facilitate the information-sharing and communication that traditionally took place face-to-face, often at annual meetings—including job interviews.

Then there is the job market itself. Colleges and universities confront the pressures of tighter budgets, generally more drastically at public universities where struggling state economies and resistance to higher taxes have together eroded funding to the point where what were once "public universities" are now often best described as "publicly assisted" institutions. Even private universities have encountered a decline in revenues from endowment. In the face of financial constraints, many institutions have reduced risk and expenditures by replacing tenurable faculty with variants of contingently employed scholars—full time, nontenure track at best; abysmally paid part-time at worst—often without providing them continuing access to a library or the scholarly resources to build a career.

Herein lies the first clue to transformation. For some time now, we have heard references to the research hurdles confronting "unaffiliated scholars." But in the digital age, no scholar (or other serious readers for that matter) need be "unaffiliated," given the potential expansion of benefits to members of scholarly societies like the AHA, where "affiliation" is a matter of paying dues. We are in the early stages of exploring how we might provide members with access to collections, journals, and other digital resources ordinarily accessible only though a university library. We have started small, with access to Choice reviews online, but will soon announce a significant additional offering and hope to move in the direction of providing access to more journals besides the AHR.

These are small moves, examples of how the digital environment provides new opportunities, new ways of serving our members and enhancing scholarly communication among historians by widening access to publications and sources. Similarly, our recent annual meeting in Chicago suggested ways in which consideration of digital tools, sources, and epistemologies could bring new dimensions to a scholarly conference. As our steps get bigger, our strides longer, we will provide our members with new ways of being historians, new ways of building communities. The AHA is figuring out how to weave together a more closely bonded sense of professional identity within the discipline, while opening new possibilities of professional practice outside it. The AHA web site must become a place where our members' identities as historians play out on a daily basis; and a place where nonhistorians (for example, journalists, general history readers, and individuals trained as historians but now working outside the field) can find a history community suited to their specific needs and varied interests.

What will historians want from such a web site, and how best can we help them build and restructure communities? A small grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has enabled the AHA to begin defining and then addressing the questions that must underlie the construction of a new environment for scholarly communication. The AHA defines both "scholarly" and "scholarship" broadly, to include not only a variety of research methods, but also a vast range of venues for the dissemination of historical work. These include schools, national parks, local historical societies, digital history cooperatives, and all sorts of other places—both in-person and online—where historical work takes place.

We also define "advocacy" broadly, and in various contexts—taking it beyond the traditional focus on directly influencing government. Our recent plea to reconsider the ways in which graduate faculty and students think about employment for history PhDs is an example of advocacy, even though it involves no public policy interventions beyond measures to increase employment opportunities in the public sector. But we hope that in the long run we can enhance our influence by widening our presence in public culture. A modest redesign of our web site, to be completed in the spring, will include new links to the many kinds of advocacy work carried out by our members and collaborating organizations, in addition to providing information about our own activities. We are moving closer to our online destination—the point where our web site becomes the place for historians to discuss and debate these issues, and many others.

The issues themselves are many and complex, but our question is simple: how does a scholarly society plan the future of its conferences, newsletters, journals, and new forms of scholarly publishing, communication, and outreach so that it can take advantage of the digital environment and strengthen the organization's value to its current and future membership? That simple question, however, has several specific components:

  1. What do historians value about the AHA, and what separates members from non-members (both in terms of the value they place on membership and in their overall needs)?
  2. What new services and products would attract, retain, and best contribute to the widely varying interests of AHA members?
  3. What new services and products would help to increase the visibility and relevance of history beyond professional historians, and how does the AHA leverage its authority, credibility, and access in the digital environment?
  4. What constitutes an intellectual "community" in the 21st century, and what does it mean to "belong" as a "member" or "citizen" of that community? How much does this matter to prospective members of the American Historical Association?

Send us your thoughts.

James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.