From the Viewpoints column of the January 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

A Million Little Historical Societies: A Proposal for Change

Tim Lacy, January 2008

History societies and their annual meetings present a number of opportunities for professional growth—and sometimes even fun. I'm currently a member of several: the History of Education Society (HES), Organization of American Historians (OAH), Social Science History Association (SSHA), American Historical Association (AHA), etc. I enjoy the various publications of each, and maintain a good deal of enthusiasm for their annual meetings. At the meetings I enjoy listening to paper presentations, debating issues in the field, socializing with my colleagues, and availing the opportunity to explore a new city.

Along with my love for the field and my subdisciplines, of late I have worked with particular enthusiasm on intellectual history. Through my work at the U.S. Intellectual History web log I've gained a greater understanding of the needs and desires of my colleagues in that area.1 I've also come to notice a persistent craving in that subdiscipline, both in others and myself, for an annual conference. With that in mind we engaged in serious discussions about how to create a regular conference, start a caucus within an existing organization, and perhaps even create a new society.2 Our relative lack of resources, however, resulted in numerous problems. There were no easy outlets for our energies. Eventually we happily agreed to a conference partnership with the Great Lakes Historical Society.3

I've learned from this process, but a number of questions remain: Why did we have to reinvent the wheel? Why do we have to create yet another society? Why is this so hard? What can be done about the situation?

My only answer is that our existing historical societies, particularly the large ones, are too inflexible to accommodate change. They have no easy, timely, or ready means for incorporating new movements and new ideas.

But we just can't keep creating new societies for every subdiscipline, either. For one, this creates a resource and time dilemma for both junior and senior scholars. The former crave both larger, national connections and the particular associations and learning associated with smaller societies. They want a bit of everything. But few history departments, however, subsidize organizational memberships for their graduate students. The current situation also harms senior scholars. It forces them into, at best, a rotation cycle. How can this be good for collegiality, or perhaps even morale?

Apart from being just a human inconvenience for aspiring and senior scholars, the multiplication of historical societies is a major problem—a failing of the history profession in general. It's institutionalized field fragmentation.

In search of answers I looked at the set up and creation of the AHA. I read some tangentially related articles about its history, as well as that of the OAH, by Ray Billington. I found a fascinating piece by former AHA president R. R. Palmer on the state of AHA as of 1970. Of course I also read the existing documents at the AHA's web site, related to changes implemented in 1972 and 1973, as well as the Association's constitution and bylaws.4

The organization of the AHA is fairly straightforward. It has elected officers, a Council, a Board of Trustees, a Finance Committee, an Executive Committee, a Nominating Committee, and many other committees.5 It also has three divisions: Research, Teaching, and Professional. The general responsibilities of those divisions include the promotion of historical scholarship, teaching history, and employment opportunities, respectively. Some of the 1972–73 changes dealt substantially with committee issues. But most of AHA's current bylaws deal with its annual business meeting and Nominating Committee. There seems to be no provision in the AHA's constitution for creating committees according to subdisciplines.

Is the OAH any different? I scanned its constitution for committee and/or divisional arrangements.6 While the OAH maintains a greater number of committees (many for prizes), it too clearly makes no provision for a subdisciplinary arrangement.

To its credit the AHA, for instance, does seem to desire improvements in its current structure. They have a committee called the "Working Group on the Future of the AHA." That group sought ideas for change at the AHA's relatively new web log on November 5, 2006.7 What follows is, in a sense, my response to that solicitation.

What I would like to propose, for either the AHA or the OAH, is a simple remedy: duplicate the structure of an existing, successful organization from a field of study that has avoided fragmentation. My wife, a public history-trained curator who works with a lot of librarians, suggested I look at the American Library Association. The ALA is comprised of several "divisions." Each of these divisions, moreover, contains a number of subdivisions from which members can choose.8 What of other professional organizations? The Modern Language Association has numerous committees. A complete list of the MLA's field-specific committees, called "Division Executive Committees," is located at its web site.9 Either of these organizational structures seems much more user- (and subdiscipline-) friendly than the history profession's current set-up of a million little historical societies.

But how would the AHA, for instance, accommodate a new structure? The current system of partnered or affiliated societies—a confederacy—is not the answer. That results in unnecessary, duplicate membership work. Why should anyone be forced into multiple membership fees when one umbrella society could be just as effective?

Should the AHA's current committee system be expanded? Perhaps. In this way it would resemble the MLA's set up. But the AHA could also mimic the ALA's divisional system. The precise term or method utilized—committee, division, group—matters less than the result; namely, a flexible system that reflects the current and changing interests of the field.

Changing to a subdisciplinary unit structure would likely require an amendment to the AHA's existing constitution (perhaps Article VI?). These new units would take the place of existing, small, hard-to-maintain but broad-based historical societies. A defined "unit creation" process would have be formulated. Quorums would need to be determined, as well as funding.

How would money be distributed? I would let the members dictate that. No one would have to commit to any single unit. A member could, perhaps, mark 5–10 units of importance (such as gender, culture, and education) for their existing period of membership. Some might choose every division. If so, perhaps 5–10 would be covered by one's annual basic dues, but more unit selections would require extra fees.

Of course there would be an initial period where things are in flux, when members consult and make final decisions about which areas are most important to them. Monetary distribution would then be determined by membership numbers in each subdiscipline's unit. Every unit with a quorum (say 25 members, for example) would receive some minimal amount. Any unit with a quorum and proposals would also be guaranteed space for at least one panel at the annual meeting. More members in, and more enthusiasm from, a particular unit could of course result in many more panel spaces. There could also be a sliding scale for the quantitative hierarchy of units: interest group (smallest, 10–15 members), unit (25–50 per above), and division (largest, more than 50).

I don't see how this change in superstructure would hurt the traditional functions of the AHA or any large society. Paper and other types of panels would still be proposed and presented, teaching would still be addressed, the annual meeting structure would likely be similar, and print publications are not affected at all. All that would happen is growth. More members would feel comfortable operating in an organization that can flex and bend, with quicker response times, to the needs of micro-communities.

Perhaps this change would result in some substantial partnership or merger with H-Net. I suspect there's a division-in-waiting for each H-Net list, a ready-made membership list if you will.

The AHA currently serves some 14,000 members. I would wager that the Association could triple that if it adopted a more flexible, divisional set-up. Of course this "tripling" wouldn't occur overnight.

The AHA would need a few years for debates to take place and the changes to take effect. But it would draw new members currently dissatisfied with the multiple membership situation. I suspect the diversity of the organization would also increase.

This "big tent" approach might also allow for greater solidarity and communication between historians and a host of other professionals in history: archivists, museum personnel, and perhaps even history "buffs" and local historians. In the current system, many affiliated societies already meet during the AHA's annual meeting, and the AHA sponsors their respective panels. A unit system would just federalize the existing confederacy.

Another positive by-product of this enlarged organization, whether the AHA or the OAH, would be an expanded political base. With more members behind an organization's statement, the more likely it would be to receive congressional notice. Personally I'm not in favor of increased, aggregate political activism, but I certainly don't oppose the notion that our professional voices should receive more attention. A federation will accomplish that.

This proposed change will, without a doubt, cause great consternation, hand-wringing, and soul searching. A year of debate would probably be necessary. In that year some will complain about creating "too democratic" an organization, one that sways too much with hoi polloi. Others will complain that we are breaking tradition: the organization is fine as it is, they will say. Some will also argue that AHA is already too large, that growth is unnecessary.

AHA and OAH, what say you? Is our current system of a "million little historical societies" unchangeable, or necessary? Should all present and future historians be resigned to having 5–10 memberships of $100 apiece annually?

—Tim Lacy received his PhD in history from Loyola University, Chicago in 2006. His dissertation covered the history of the Great Books idea, with a focus on Mortimer J. Adler. He lives in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.He wishes to thank Toby Higbie, Jodi Lacy, Mike Nicholsen, Joe Petrulionis, and Rick Shenkman for their suggestions.

Notes

1. The URL for the web log is http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com. It has eight editors: Paul Anderson, Andrew Hartman, Tim Lacy, Paul Murphy, Mike O'Connor, Joe Petrulionis, Sylwester Ratowt, and John Thomas Scott.

2. Those conversations are available to the public at http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2007/02/organizing-caucus-independent.html.

3. For more, see http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2007/11/cfp-usih-conference-october-2008.html.

4. Ray Billington, American Historical Review (April 1973) and the Journal of American History (June 1978); R.R. Palmer, American Historical Review (February 1971). The URL for the AHA's web site is www.historians.org. The two documents related to 1972 and 1973, respectively, are at www.historians.org/pubs/archives/ReviewBoard/ReviewBoardTOH.cfm and www.historians.org/pubs/archives/73Reform_Letter.htm. The AHA's constitution is located at www.historians.org/info/WhoAre.cfm.

5. A full list of the AHA's committees is at www.historians.org/governance/Committees.

6. The URL of the OAH's constitution is www.oah.org/about/constitution.html.

7. The URL for the AHA's web log post is blog.historians.org/profession/52/future-past.

8. Information on the ALA's divisions is located at www.ala.org/ala/ourassociation/divisions/divisions.htm.

9. Information on the MLA's committee system and committees is located at www.mla.org/governance/about_committees
and www.mla.org/governance/committees/danddg.