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From the AHA Activities column of the October 2006 Perspectives

Thinking about the Future, the AHA, and You

William H. Chafe, October 2006

If you care about the American Historical Association, and indeed, if you care about the state of the historical profession, we need your help in assessing the health and future direction of the AHA.

On the surface the Association seems quite healthy, with a large membership, superb publications, and almost a decade of balanced budgets. Beneath that surface, however, there is real cause for concern. Over the past decade, membership remained essentially flat and subscriptions to the American Historical Review fell, even as the number of professional historians (in a wide variety of work contexts) grew significantly. At the same time, the Association finds itself buffeted by new challenges facing the profession, from a changing employment picture to the selling and reclassification of historical materials. This is occurring as a new generation rises to prominence in the profession (almost 60 percent of the AHA's membership earned their degrees since 1990) and changes in the technologies of communication reshape the way the AHA interacts with its members.

The Association needs to confront these challenges in a serious and thoughtful way, so in the coming months I will be chairing a “working group’ of AHA members to address these issues. This working group will consist of Jim Grossman (Newberry Library), Lynn Hunt (UCLA), Earl Lewis (Emory Univ.), Danielle McGuire (Rutgers Univ.), Paula A. Michaels (Univ. of Iowa), Stefan Tanaka (Univ. of California at San Diego), and executive director Arnita Jones. The working group is small, because we want to prepare a final report and recommendations with sufficient quality and authority to command assent—a characteristic rare in documents written by large committees. To truly function, however, we will need your advice and input.

The mandate from Council is quite broad, asking us to consider “how the Association can represent the diversity of its members” intellectual and practical needs as well as the needs of those historians who do not currently belong to the AHA.” As that suggests, the Association is in an unusual position—to serve its members it has to serve the entire profession. So the challenge lies in assessing what the Association can do for the profession as a whole, within the limits of the resources it can generate as a membership association and publisher.

This fall we will be holding preliminary meetings to determine the shape of the questions we will need to address, and map out how we might consider these issues. So this is an ideal time to offer your own thoughts about issues or concerns that we need to put on our agenda. Please do not hesitate to contact us directly about this issue or through Robert Townsend on the committee' staff. He can be reached by e-mail or by regular mail to the AHA's headquarters office at 400 A St., SE, Washington, DC 20003.

After our initial discussions this fall, we will hold an open forum on the committee' work at the Association's meeting in Atlanta in January, where we hope to have a real conversation about where we need to go from here. We hope to craft a report and recommendations for consideration by members next fall.

The health of the profession requires a strong and vital association that can advocate for its interests and encourage development in the discipline. We hope you will join us in our effort to build toward that future.

—William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor at Duke University, is chair of the Working Group on the Future of the American Historical Association.