Mellon Foundation Renews Support for Gutenberg-e Prizes

Pillarisetti Sudhir, September 2001

Reaffirming its support for electronic publishing, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which had funded the Gutenberg-e Prize competitions for three years initially, has given a generous grant of $980,000 to the AHA to enable it to continue the program (in conjunction with Columbia University Press as in the previous cycle) for another three years. While the current series will be coming to an end with this year's competition (for which the deadline has been extended until October 1, 2001), the new grant will enable the Association to continue to hold the competitions in 2002, 2003, and 2004.

Reacting to the announcement, Robert Darnton, who launched the program when he was president of the Association, and who is himself an e-book author, said, "Not only has the Mellon Foundation financed Gutenberg-e with two generous grants, but it also has helped to shape the program and improve it. We ran into unanticipated problems and opportunities along the way. Thanks to support from Mellon, we were able to improvise solutions and to add new features—notably workshops at the Columbia University Press, where authors, editors, book designers, and computer experts collaborated in creating books of a new kind, which make the most of the electronic medium. We hope that Gutenberg-e can serve as a model for scholarly e-books in all disciplines."

AHA Executive Director Arnita A. Jones was also delighted to hear about the new grant. "The Association has learned a great deal from this project about how electronic technologies can be harnessed to enhance historical scholarship," she said, and declared, "We are grateful to the Mellon Foundation for providing historians this opportunity to explore and experiment."

Kate Wittenberg, director of EPIC (Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia), commented, "The Gutenberg-e Project has allowed us to experiment with new models for collaborative editorial development, web design, and functionality, and new ways of structuring and crafting historical narrative. This project is already providing new models for historical writing and publishing that are affecting attitudes toward digital scholarly communication within the academic world."

As before, a committee of eminent scholars will select the winners of the six prizes (one of which will be reserved for an independent, public, or part-time scholar) that will be awarded each year. The prizes will include publication of the dissertation by Columbia University Press on a dedicated web site (access to which will be licensed for a fee) and a fellowship of $20,000 to facilitate the revision of the manuscript.

The grant also provides funding for workshops—to be organized by Columbia University Press—that would help the authors navigate the complexities of cyberspace and to find the most effective ways of enhancing the traditional text as it is transformed into an e-text. The prizewinning authors will be required to enter into a contract with CUP agreeing to electronic publication of their works in the first iteration, but they will be able to publish their books in the traditional form three years after they are first published online (with the press having the right of first refusal). However, given the various enhancements that are possible in e-publishing, and the much wider and quicker distribution of the e-books, few of the authors may choose to exercise this option. The American Historical Review, among other journals, has developed guidelines for reviewing these books. The editor of the AHR pointed out that while the e-books are different in form, they would be evaluated primarily for their intellectual content. It is expected that such reviews will help legitimate the books and lessen the skepticism prevalent among some academics about electronic texts.

The e-books emerging from the first series of competitions will be launched at a special function to be held during the 116th annual meeting of the AHA at San Francisco in January 2002.

The program was originally undertaken to facilitate publication of the best history dissertations in fields where the traditional monograph had become endangered because of declining sales and the resulting publisher resistance. Thus, the first series of competitions focused on Africa, colonial Latin America, and South Asia (1999); Europe before 1800 (2000); and military history and the history of foreign relations (2001).

In light of experience gained from this series, and to widen the pool of competitors, the first of the new competitions will focus on American history up to 1900, one of the most popular fields, accounting for more than 15 percent of the PhDs produced each year.

—PS