The Gutenberg-e Program: Reaching Goals, Going Beyond

Robert Townsend and Elizabeth Fairhead, November 2004

As the Gutenberg-e program entered its sixth year, the project reached important milestones in submissions and academic achievement. The number dissertations submitted to the program increased by more than 50 percent, with a record number of entries–62–now in the hands of the judges. Equally important, two of the early authors in the program, Anne Hardgrove of the University of Texas at San Antonio and Gregory S. Brown of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, received tenure in their respective history departments. Legitimating electronic publishing in the academy was a fundamental aspect of the program, so this has been closely watched in a number of disciplines and administrative offices. 

As regular readers of Perspectives know, the program (launched by the AHA in collaboration with Columbia University Press, with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) selects high-quality dissertations every year and awards the authors $20,000 each to support their efforts to develop their manuscripts into digital monographs that are then published online. Since the program's inception, 28 authors have received these prestigious prizes, and 11 e-books are already online with many more in the pipeline.

As the 2004 prize committee makes its selections, the AHA and its partners at Columbia are facing significant decisions about the future of the program. This is the final competition with funding from the Mellon Foundation. Where do we go from here? Can the program become self-sustaining? If the program is to continue, what form should it take? As we ponder such questions, it is instructive to look back at the program's operation and the challenges it brought up.

Looking Back at the Beginnings

The AHA initiated the project with three specific, interrelated goals–to legitimate electronic publishing, to rescue the endangered monograph, and to remedy a perceived crisis in scholarly publishing. As the then AHA President Robert Darnton described it, "Studies by the AHA and professional organizations such as the Research Library Group have demonstrated that it is almost impossible for beginning historians to get their dissertations published if they work in fields such as African history, colonial Latin America, or even early modern Europe. Moreover, the technology is evolving so rapidly that publishing of all sorts is shifting massively to the Internet. By creating a program to publish top dissertations on the Web, the AHA intends to set standards for electronic publishing in general."1

At the outset, these three purposes seemed closely aligned. If publishing houses were producing fewer scholarly monographs, and the monograph remained the gold standard for tenure, then it stood to reason that new PhDs would need other outlets for their work, and feel a real attraction to the Gutenberg-e project. At the same time, it was assumed that scholars who were increasingly working in a world filled with personal computers would bring a greater facility and creativity to the task of creating innovative and interesting publications for the new medium.

However, a tension could soon be perceived between those goals and expectations and the realities on the ground. At least in the field of history, it became clear that the monograph was not quite as endangered as feared. While the health of university presses and monograph publishing remains quite troubled, it appears history in general is more successful than most fields in getting books published.2 This was borne out in an unpublished survey of recent history PhDs who indicated fairly little concern about getting their dissertation published in print. In response to these findings, the goal of rescuing the endangered monograph was deemphasized beginning with the third round of the competition.

The tension between the program's goal of seeking to legitimate electronic publishing and the reality of the fairly widespread notion that the Internet was not a viable medium for disseminating history scholarship unfortunately proved to be the most persistent. Members of the profession continued to express significant levels of skepticism about electronic publishing despite the growing popularity and influence of this and other prestigious programs, such as the ACLS History E-Book project and the History Cooperative.

Fortunately, most of the Gutenberg-e authors report that the award was received quite positively in their departments. Nevertheless, while there have been clear signs of improvement at the individual level, the doubts of those with less exposure to these projects continue to hinder the growth and success of electronic publishing projects in the discipline.

Getting the Word Out

Given the continuing skepticism about scholarly publishing on the Internet, it seemed essential to create a receptive climate of opinion to support and sustain the new project. Robert Darnton sought to do this initially by writing two essays in Perspectives. He then recast these for what turned into a major essay for the New York Review of Books.3 That essay was widely read in Britain, Germany, Italy, and especially France, where it became part of a large-scale debate about scholarly publishing on the Internet. Darnton also published another essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education and an op-ed essay in the New York Times. Both the Chronicle and the Times followed up with news stories, as did some other journals.

The annual competitions themselves were also widely advertised–not just in the pages of Perspectives and the AHR, but also in other high-circulation media such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Academe, the H-Net lists, and several academic journals. In addition, targeted e-mail messages were sent to chairs of departments, advisers, and even individual scholars working in the competition fields.

Despite such broad levels of publicity for the program and the ideas underlying it, and the attention devoted to the publicizing the competitions, too many scholars did not get the message. The number of entries–especially in the first two years–remained low and threatened to derail the program. The broadening of the competition themes to draw a larger range of competitors helped, as particularly demonstrated by the 2004 competition for which a dissertation on any history topic could be submitted. But as the program evolved, it became evident that the lack of submissions was not the only problem.

Problems with Publishing Electronically

As the authors set about translating their prize-winning dissertations into e-books, it became clear that providing an alternative publishing outlet for scholars was more problematic than originally imagined. Evidently, the process of revising a manuscript and preparing it for publication–and the timetables for doing so–had to be substantially reconceptualized and changed. Initially, Columbia University Press expected to publish each year's winners as a group, within one year of selection. This proved to be unrealistic. The first books in the project were published a full two years after the prizes were awarded.

In light of this experience, two significant impediments to the development of the dissertations into e-books have been identified: (1) the difficulties involved in revising a manuscript while making the transition from being doctoral students to (in many cases) becoming junior members of a history department, and (2) the difficulties of discerning what to do in (and with) the electronic medium.

It is in the nature of the life cycle of new history PhDs at the start of their careers that they have (too) many commitments. Most faculty starting out in today's academy have to deal with heavy teaching loads, large class sizes, and extensive committee work, and all these compete with their efforts to complete and publish the all-important first book required for tenure.

Beyond the practical problems in the authors' lives, the special requirements of online publishing added a layer of complexity that became a further impediment to the swift revision of the manuscripts. The expectation that historians exposed to new technologies would naturally be more knowledgeable and more open to doing something creative with the electronic medium proved to be only partially correct. Although most Gutenberg-e authors entered the project with a keen interest in making substantive use of the medium, important differences existed in their levels of interest and approaches to the medium.

A few of the new authors came with backgrounds in technology or other new media projects, and used that to hit the ground running. However, most of the authors entered with fairly little background beyond a basic knowledge of word processing. The authors generally fit into one of three types:

  • authors whose interest in the new medium was limited, and thought only of including a few archival sources or illustrative images; they were primarily looking merely for a vehicle to communicate their texts;
  • authors who were interested in the medium but had a hard time discerning what they could do with it; and
  • authors who saw significant possibilities in the medium and were willing to reshape their projects accordingly.

The authors with background skills in the technology and the authors interested primarily in just publishing the text of their dissertation online moved swiftly through to completion. However, authors who wanted to do something more with the medium, but lacked the necessary background, took longer (sometimes significantly longer) than their peers.

To compensate for the additional work involved in publishing electronically, the AHA and Columbia University Press have held semiannual workshops for the authors (thanks to the Mellon Foundation's generous support). The workshops allowed the authors to come together with the editors, programmers, and designers at Columbia, as well as the authors from other prize cohorts, to find solutions for common problems and ease the way to published books.

In addition to hosting the workshops, the AHA's partners at Electronic Publishing Initiatives at Columbia (EPIC) have also provided a wide range of creative efforts and services by developing detailed author guides, designing a flexible framework that could serve the purposes of a range of different types of publications, and working through a host of distribution issues.

Gutenberg-e and the Legitimization of Electronic Publishing

One of the other early realizations in the program was that if the e-books were to succeed as scholarship, it would be necessary to develop new modes of criticism and review that would take note of the unique features of the new medium while legitimating and authenticating the new publications. Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, who attended the second authors' workshop, observed that many, if not most, history journals lacked a procedure for reviewing electronic publications. No one knew, for example, how online books might be "distributed" to reviewers, and whether they should be separately reviewed in a distinctive section or considered along with the traditional books.

Grossberg and his colleagues reflected on such questions and developed a set of guidelines for reviewing e-books that was approved by the Council of the AHA and which promises to serve not only as a guide for the AHR but also as a model for reviewing e-books throughout much of the scholarly world. The AHR decided not to segregate e-books into a separate category of scholarly publications. Instead, it decided to review them along with other books in the same field (seeking out reviewers who are experts in that field). Although the AHR will ask reviewers to take the special qualities of the electronic medium into account, it will ask them to put the scholarship first and will do everything possible to integrate e-books into the ongoing debates about history in general.

Electronic books are still new, of course, and continue to face obstacles in breaking into the established tracks of academic scholarship. Grossberg, as a leader in both the Conference of Historical Journals and the History Cooperative, has been particularly helpful, therefore, in promulgating the guidelines more widely to the field, and thus helping to change the protocols of the review process.

At the publishing and marketing end of the program, EPIC has been working directly with the library community–among others–to discuss how to make the new e-books more visible. A focus group with librarians held in December 2002 revealed a good deal of enthusiasm for projects like Gutenberg-e, and the AHA and EPIC received some good advice on obtaining proper MARC catalog records and improving the design of the online books.

Gaining Recognition and Acceptance

As more prize-winning dissertations are published on the web site and the project continues to be publicized, the growing prestige of the program is garnering recognition for the published prizewinners. Some recent recipients of the prize at least partially credit their winning the Gutenberg-e prize for securing grants, offers of employment or promotion, and nominations for other prizes. Despite a somewhat slow start, the gathering momentum of the program is, we think, compounding the prestige of the prize, which, inevitably, will in turn promote the legitimization of electronic publishing in the scholarly world.

–Robert Townsend, AHA assistant director for research and publications, oversees the Gutenberg-e program.
Elizabeth Fairhead, AHA research associate, helps to administer the program.


1. Robert Darnton, "What Is the Gutenberg-e Program?" American Historical Association web site, online at http://www.historians. org/prizes/gutenberg/rdarnton2.cfm, viewed on 10/16/04.

2. Robert B. Townsend, "History and the Future of Scholarly Publishing," Perspectives (October 2003), 13.

3. Robert Darnton, "The New Age of the Book," New York Review of Books (March 18, 1999), 5–7.