Reply of AHA President Linda K. Kerber to Secretary Small
May 5, 2006
The Honorable Lawrence M. Small
Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
100 Jefferson Drive, SW
Washington, D.C. 20560
Dear Secretary Small:
We thank you for taking the time to respond to our letter.
We fear you misapprehend our concerns. The Smithsonian Institution maintains its high standing with the American people and the historical profession because it is seen as a public trust, serving all. The American Historical Association supports access for everyone seeking to create and disseminate history, not only scholars, teachers and academics.
The fundamental issues remain unanswered. What constitutes a “commercial” entity subject to these provisions? What constitutes a “significant use” of materials and staff? And who at the Smithsonian or Showtime will make those assessments? We continue to seek clarification of the terms of the agreement and an open discussion with the stakeholders in the Smithsonian.
We do not think your distinction between commercial and non-commercial users is meaningful, particularly in a context that would privilege one commercial interest over all others. Nor do we accept that this is a simple matter of basic management of the collections. We see a clear distinction between your responsibilities in allocating available resources and an arrangement that makes such allocations based on “confidential” criteria and apparently hands those decisions to an outside entity.
Your letter reinforces the concerns that prompted us to write. It offers a perplexing array of contradictions. You take us to task for raising our concerns publicly without asking for more information, but then assert that these matters of access “have been discussed and explained.” Your letter objects to our characterization of the agreement as “secret” but then proceeds to explain why the terms must be “confidential.” Throughout, your response dismisses our concerns that some filmmakers might be arbitrarily excluded from materials and curators, but offers only vague descriptions about who might be excluded and why.
We also note concerns recently raised by the Society of American Historians, an affiliate of the AHA, regarding the Smithsonian’s confidential publishing contract with HarperCollins. We note with alarm that the Society felt it necessary to take the unprecedented step of suspending Smithsonian Books as one of its publisher-members, and hope the Institution will treat their concerns with equal gravity. Both arrangements raise compelling concerns about how the management at Smithsonian is exercising its responsibilities over the public trust it holds.
Given the lack of a clear response from the Smithsonian, we can only applaud the Chair and the Ranking Minority Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies for investigating these matters. We hope that their attention will bring a satisfactory resolution to this very troubling situation.
Linda K. Kerber
American Historical Association
May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts & Sciences
The University of Iowa
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