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From the AHA Activities column in the November 2000 Perspectives

A National Center for Historical Studies: A Proposal for Discussion

Wm. Roger Louis, November 2000

Dear Fellow Members of the AHA:

Since the spring of this year the leadership of the AHA has been working to draft a proposal for a National Center for Historical Studies. The center might occupy a Library of Congress building, the former St. Cecilia's School, which is near both the library and the AHA headquarters.

The proposal for a National Center has a long history, but recently James M. Banner Jr., a dedicated champion of the idea, discussed the project and its antecedents in an article in Perspectives in November 1999. He met with the Research Division of the AHA in April 2000, and shortly thereafter I learned from Prosser Gifford, the director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress, that a building might be available for the center. The possibility of a Library of Congress building has transformed the situation. What was a matter of speculation is now a tangible prospect.

The center would differ from all other comparable centers by being devoted solely to history. It would be equally committed to teaching and research. The center would offer fellowships on the basis of competitive merit, reserving some of the fellowships for independent scholars, community college teachers, and those underrepresented in the historical profession. The center would sponsor public lectures, conferences, publications, and programs designed not only to promote research but also to improve the teaching of history in schools and universities. By establishing the center, the AHA would reinforce its own aims and would strengthen the discipline of history in every aspect of public life.

A key point in the proposal is that the center would be an independently funded, autonomous enterprise with its own governing board. The center would not be dependent on existing resources or funds of the AHA. We would need an endowment, which would take time and considerable effort to raise from public-spirited Americans committed to history and the teaching of history. In working to create the endowment, the AHA would take care not to compete with existing institutions but on the contrary to collaborate with them. A National History Center in Washington can achieve goals beyond the reach of existing institutions and can raise money in ways that cannot otherwise be done. We would address the issue of funding by appointing a blue-ribbon commission of former AHA officers, well-known authors, and public figures interested in history.

Since this letter is in the nature of a public communication, I must enter a disclaimer on behalf of the Library of Congress. The use of the St. Cecilia building is governed by congressional legislation. For legal and legislative reasons, the library cannot at present formally support the proposal or the use of the building, until the legal, financial, and legislative consequences have been fully explored. Nevertheless the Office of Scholarly Programs at the Library of Congress is cognizant of the proposal. I am optimistic that the project can eventually move forward.

I would welcome your response to the proposal, which I hope will be widely debated by the membership at large and then accepted by the AHA Council at its meeting in January. Please send your comments to me at AHA headquarters in care of Miriam Hauss, our executive assistant. Her address is American Historical Association, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889. Her fax number is (202) 544-8307.

This is an historic opportunity.

The Proposal

The American Historical Association proposes the creation of a National Center for Historical Studies. Its purpose would be to promote the understanding of history among teachers, scholars, and the general citizenry, not only in the United States but throughout the world. At present, historians from all states and abroad converge on Washington to make use of the capital's vast resources, but they lack a base in the nation's capital where they can make contact with one another and collaborate in the common endeavor of teaching and studying history. A National Center for Historical Studies would provide both a focal point for their activities and a resource for promoting the study of history everywhere. It would sponsor public lectures, seminars, workshops, conferences, publications, pedagogical materials, and programs designed to enhance research and improve teaching in schools and universities. To realize this mission, the center would depend upon its proximity to the Library of Congress, founded in 1800 and now the world's largest library, and the support of the American Historical Association, the nation's oldest and largest historical organization, formed in 1884 and chartered by Congress in 1889. The National Center for Historical Studies would draw on the collections and expertise of the former and the cumulative knowledge and skills of the latter, thus promoting a unique collaborative relationship.

The idea of a national history center has long been embraced by leaders in the historical profession. The antecedents of the proposal reach back to J. Franklin Jameson in the early years of the twentieth century. The project was revived by two other distinguished historians—Julian Boyd half a century later, and James M. Banner Jr., who has championed its creation in the new millennium (see his essay, "A National Center for History". The relationship between the Library of Congress and the AHA is also historic, with the AHA's headquarters housed at one time in the library's annex, now known as the Adams Building. The existing link of cooperation is the AHA–J. Franklin Jameson Fellowship for historical research at the Library of Congress.

The center itself would be an independently funded, autonomous enterprise with its own governing board. It is hoped that a consortium of major universities would endorse its purpose. The staff of the center initially would consist of a director, an associate director, and a librarian, though of course the staff would grow along with the implementation of the programs. The center would need an endowment, which would take time and considerable effort to raise from public-spirited Americans committed to history and the teaching of history. In working to create the endowment, the AHA would take care not to compete with existing institutions but on the contrary to collaborate with them. A center in Washington could achieve goals beyond the reach of existing institutions and could raise money in ways that could otherwise not be done. The issue of funding would be addressed by appointing a blue-ribbon commission of former AHA officers, well-known authors, and public figures interested in history.

As distinct from all other national institutions, the National Center for Historical Studies would be solely devoted to the study of history in all places and at all times. Historians coming from abroad as well as from the United States would use the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, and would share perspectives and work-in-progress at the National Center for Historical Studies. The center would be able to assist historians in more effectively using resources in the Washington area.

The National Center for Historical Studies might be housed in a Library of Congress building near the library and the AHA headquarters. The property, the former St. Cecilia's school, is substantial. It is a three-story structure which, after renovation, would provide a lecture hall, seminar rooms, and study space for visiting fellows and scholars, all of whom would have access to state-of-the-art technology. Some of the classrooms would be converted into reading rooms with reference libraries. The building would have space for summer institutes (for teachers and for students from backgrounds underrepresented in the study of history, for example), conferences, and programs in emerging technologies. A recent seminar for community college faculty on the theme "Globalizing Regional Studies" (hosted by the Library of Congress and cosponsored by the AHA and the Community College Humanities Association) is an example of the type of conference that the National Center for Historical Studies might sponsor on a regular basis.

As an earlier generation of historians might have said, the center would become a beacon, casting light on the best practices in education. It would further education on a national level by helping to promote effective teaching, and by taking the lead in public discussion on the teaching of history. It would sponsor workshops for teachers in schools and colleges. It would assist in the preparation of new curricula based on recent scholarship and innovative teaching methods. It would provide space for exhibitions of prizewinning historical works. And it would be a place for national ceremonies. By creating the center, the AHA would reinforce its own aims in education, teaching, and research.

The National Center for Historical Studies would play a significant role at the professional level by bringing to the public's attention the role of public historians in archives, libraries, museums, galleries, corporations, and government agencies as well as institutions concerned with historical preservation and commemoration. A publications program, dedicated to both traditional and electronic publishing, would also assist in furthering professional aims. It would have three principal purposes. One would be to publish distinguished lectures. Another would be to co-publish, with university presses, thematic books developed from conferences sponsored by the center. And the third would be to assist in the publication of monographs and other work begun at the center, including the short monograph that is too long to be an article but too short to be a book. An example would be a return to an earlier AHA tradition—Kanichi Asakawa's "Life of a Monastic Sho in Medieval Japan" long remained a classic after it was published in the 1916 Annual Report of the AHA.

Research would be basic to the National Center, which would eventually provide about a dozen fellowships each year on the basis of competitive merit for research and writing in Washington. Some of the fellowships would be reserved for independent scholars, community college teachers, public historians, and scholars from backgrounds underrepresented in the historical profession. Foreign historical institutions would be encouraged to provide travel and support for their members to make use of the center. Special efforts would be made to assist those who teach American history and American studies in other countries. The range of research would include all fields of history, not least those in which Washington has rich resources, for example, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Institution, the Folger Library, the National Library of Medicine, and other institutions concerned with the history of science and technology, medicine, the fine arts, film, and photography. Comparative history would be promoted by scholars using the unparalleled foreign as well as American collections at the Library of Congress. While engaged in research or other activities in Washington, all historians would be welcome to visit the center and to take full advantage of its facilities. By providing a convenient base of operations, the center's proximity to the AHA headquarters and the Library of Congress would have a distinctive and tangible meaning to teachers and scholars across the spectrum of the historical profession.

The National Center for Historical Studies would welcome all approaches to history. In recent decades the concerns of society have been reflected in new emphases such as African American history, environmental history, women's history, and world history. The scope of historical inquiry has itself broadened. Such subjects as historical anthropology and cultural studies now have a firm base in the discipline. Such concepts as that of the nation, which has been a basic unit of historical scholarship since the beginning of the profession over a hundred years ago, have been transformed. The National Center for Historical Studies would embrace new approaches; but it would not neglect traditional fields of diplomatic, economic, intellectual, military, political, and religious history. It would encourage the interaction of ideas in historical debate and would promote the integration of specialized fields—and not merely in an intellectual sense. The center would benefit from Library of Congress expertise in electronic dissemination and from the AHA's leadership in electronic publishing. The historic links between the AHA and the Library of Congress are there for a reason: they both complement each other. The center would offer the prospect of bringing an enduring relationship to a new and fruitful level of collaboration.

What appeared to be visionary in the days of Jameson and Boyd is now within our reach. Not all the goals can be achieved immediately, but they can be attained eventually. The National Center for Historical Studies would focus on the resources of the nation's capital to strengthen the discipline of history not only in schools and universities but also in every aspect of public life. The center would thus fulfill a national need for a firmer knowledge of the past. Since contemporary public affairs should be understood in their historical setting, the National Center for Historical Studies would benefit not only historians but also the American people.

—Wm. Roger Louis (University of Texas at Austin) is president-elect of the AHA.

Please send your comments by e-mail to Miriam Hauss or by mail to Wm. Roger Louis, c/o Miriam Hauss, American Historical Association, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889. Fax (202) 544-8307.