The President's Preface 2004

What a strange world, and how swiftly it flies past us and we through it! Only yesterday, it seems, I was drafting a letter in my capacity as president of the AHA to Secretary of State Colin Powell, asking him to reconsider the State Department’s decision to deny visas to an entire delegation of Cuban intellectuals, artists and scholars, who had been invited by the Latin American Studies Association to their annual meeting. (Secretary Powell did not rescind the decision.) Only yesterday, it seems, our Council and staff were spending anxious hours in trying to ensure that careful and correct procedures would be followed in the selection and appointment of the new Archivist of the United States. (The transition has occurred, without the problems that we anticipated.) Only yesterday, it seems, we were holding our annual meeting in Seattle, under the banner theme of Archives and Artifacts. (Spirits were high, and the life of the mind as exhaustive and exhausting as one might have expected.)

Now all the things on which I tried to have a little impact as AHA president—the only elective office I have ever held, and I would assume my last—are in other and more capable hands. How good that feels! James Sheehan is on the front lines, and his program for the Philadelphia annual meeting seems ablaze with new ideas and new approaches, including explorations of many alternative structures and settings to replace the once sacrosanct panel of three or four paper presenters and one discussant. The careful process of finding a successor to AHR editor Michael Grossberg, who during his vibrant tenure raised the journal to new heights of inclusiveness and originality, has culminated in the appointment of Robert Schneider, who is already hard at work. Arnita Jones, our power-house director, and her amazing staff, supervise the myriad needs of our 14,000 members, and keep our institutional memories fresh and green. Two of our three divisions—where so much of the AHA’s work is done—have new leadership since I came aboard, and all three continue tenaciously addressing our most pressing problems, and solving them if it is humanly possible. Even the management of the AHA’s endowment is in new professional hands, so that the generosity of past, present, and future donors can be treated with the attention to detail that it deserves. The history coalition keeps us in tune with the dense mysteries of Washington politics and budgets, the quest for a national history center marches on its way, and diligent committees seek to locate the best winners for our numerous prizes and honorific awards.

Many people, in other words, are striving to realize their and our potential, and we are all the better for it. A summary of their labors for the year 2004 is caught here, between these covers, or—as we now must add—on these screens. The report reminds us how many people still love the craft and practice of history. And on that elegiac note let me thank once again those who make so much of our work possible, some of whose endeavors I tried to salute in the short pieces I wrote for Perspectives during my year at the helm: the curators and archivists, the cataloguers, the librarians, the preservationists, those who practice public history and teach its practice, those with the skills to be the scanners and the trackers of our mobile universe.

There is so much I do not understand about this world that it is easy to dream of giving up. And yet I draw solace from this report because I can understand it, and thus I also thank those who drew it all together for me and for you. Perusing it gives us all a moment of balance and reflection in the daily turbulence that surrounds us.

Jonathan Spence (Yale University) was president of the AHA for 2004.