Questions and Answers about the National History Center

Wm. Roger Louis, February 2003

During the past few months the members of the planning committee for the National History Center have been meeting with potential donors.* Prospective benefactors often have questions about the basic purpose of the center as well as about the programs and activities the center might sponsor. Along with the other members of the committee, I believe that the quest for a national history center is a worthwhile effort and we continue to devote a lot of time to it, not least to making it better known to the general public as well as to fellow historians. Some questions we receive are asked merely out of curiosity, some with varying degrees of skepticism. Most questions are asked with goodwill but occasionally some reflect a slight misunderstanding of the goal and the nature of the center. For example, there is an erroneous thought that pops up from time to time that the AHA as the sponsor of the National History Center would merely be creating another think tank in Washington, an elite institution that would be frequented mainly by scholars from the Ivy League, a sort of nostalgic or anachronistic throwback to the 1950s. The reality is entirely different. The National History Center will benefit historians from every part of the profession and every part of the world. It will provide a unique facility in Washington, D.C., focused entirely on history and will welcome graduate students and teachers in the schools and colleges as well as independent scholars and historians from the research universities. Here follow answers to questions I am often asked.

What is the purpose of the National History Center?

First and foremost, the National History Center will advance the cause of historical writing, research, and teaching, as well as dissemination of historical knowledge at many levels. The center will be sponsored by the AHA. It will be a national center with an international purpose, and will help the public here, as elsewhere, to appreciate the meaning of history. Washington, with its unparalleled archives, libraries, and museums, is like a magnet that attracts historians and teachers of history from all parts of the world as well as from all parts of the country. As a place where historians can meet and exchange ideas, the center will nurture scholarship. As a forum for debate among historians, public officials, congressional staff, journalists, diplomats, and members of the business community, the center will perform a vital national service by providing a historical context for shaping public policy. As a fount of historical knowledge, the center will strive to break down the barriers between the worlds of the scholar and the ordinary citizen. The center will thereby contribute to a greater public understanding of the past while fulfilling its principal mission in the teaching and writing of history.

Over and above its practical utility, the center has a certain vision that goes beyond that of other comparable institutions. The National History Center in Washington will symbolize the place of history in our national consciousness.

What is the relationship between the AHA and the National History Center?

The AHA is the sponsor of the National History Center, but the center itself is a self-governing and separate public trust with its own board of trustees. The AHA will always have representation on the center's board of trustees. Up to a third of the 12 trustees will be appointed by the AHA, and the remaining trustees will be historians and public figures with a commitment to history.

The independent status of the National History Center will help to protect the AHA. We have striven to ensure that the center will never be a legal or financial liability to the AHA. Albert J. Beveridge III, the legal counsel to the Association, believes that the proposed operations of the center are consistent with the AHA's mission and that the AHA representation on the center's board provides reasonable guarantees that the center and the AHA can function together harmoniously and can work together for each other's mutual benefit.

What will you actually do there? What programs will you run?

Among other programs, the center would offer two standing seminars on a regular, weekly basis and four five-week summer programs. Having directed the British Studies Program (and its weekly seminars) at the University of Texas for the last 25 years or so, I can quite confidently say that this is a realistic goal, especially with the help of a core of dedicated people-the dozen fellows appointed on a yearly basis to carry on their research and writing at the center and to participate in the weekly seminars-who will form the heart of the National History Center.

There is another key component in the day-by-day affairs of the center. Historians visiting Washington might use the center as a base of operations. They might arrive breathless from Union Station, check their luggage at the center, pick up books and manuscripts awaiting their arrival, answer e-mail messages, and attend a seminar. Overseas visitors might well include those who teach American studies in Russia, India, or Australia. Teaching American history abroad is now more difficult than ever. Assisting scholars from around the world in this and other purposes would be a principal mission of the National History Center. They would be very welcome, for example, in the weekly seminars. They would be living evidence that the center sponsors historians in all fields and that it is a national center with a global vision.

The first of the two weekly seminars would be a research seminar conducted by the director himself or herself to give emphasis to the research mission of the center as an institution for advanced historical study. The seminar would draw upon the strengths of the fellows, but the following examples might be typical. In one week there might be a talk of about 50 minutes by a scholar of medieval history, followed by half an hour of questions and discussion. In the following week there might be a historian of Latin America, the next of Germany, and so on. It would be up to the director to find a balance in chronological sweep and geographical reach, rather in the manner of the American Historical Review. Whatever the topic, people from different professions, from all walks of life, would have the sense that they could come to the center for an entirely candid discussion of historical subjects by leading authorities.

The second weekly seminar would-in the form of a roundtable discussion-be on current issues in historical perspective, such as Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel. I mention this particular topic because I recently heard a discussion about it on National Public Radio and thought to myself how much better it would have been if the eminent historians of the subject had been involved. Such a weekly seminar would create wide interest not only in this country but throughout the world.

The center would pursue arrangements with C-SPAN, the History Channel, and other media networks to ensure that the lectures and seminars would be broadcast globally in various formats. Scholars and teachers would thus have the chance to discuss before a worldwide audience some of the critical issues of our own time from an historical vantage point. The center would thus be fulfilling the critical need to reach a wider audience on historical issues and to debate historical antecedents of present-day problems in a way that no other institution does or could do.

Another major activity of the center would be the summer programs. I have myself directed a half-dozen National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars, and know that it is possible to conduct four summer programs of five weeks each. The center's activities would differ from the NEH and other programs by being entirely devoted to history. The programs would depend on assistance from foundations and other sources of support. Two would be for the first part of the summer, the other two for the latter part. In each case a larger program of, say, 30 historians might be matched with a smaller and more specialized program of about a dozen participants. For example, in the first five weeks, June–July:

1. Globalizing Regional History. This is a seminar program in world history for about 30 historians that can utilize the area collections of the Library of Congress to discuss the history of regions such as the Middle East and the Caribbean in the context of world history. Three such seminars have already been successfully held for community college teachers by the AHA and the Library of Congress in collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.

2. Teaching History Hi-Tech. The AHA's Gutenberg-e workshops provide a model of how new technology and its concepts can enhance historical scholarship. In the center's hi-tech program for about a dozen historians, one component would be the use of foreign historical sources, for example, Russian and Chinese, that would enable teachers not only to get access to material but to use it effectively.

And in the second five weeks, July-August, for example:

3. Teaching American History. A program for about 30 teachers that would emphasize how history has been taught—is being taught—in American schools and colleges by discussing two key works each week that would deal with the evolving body of historical writing on a subject as well as present-day approaches. An opportunity for teachers at all levels to read classic works in the field alongside recent historical accounts. High school teachers of history, for example, would be brought together with scholars from colleges and universities.

4. Historical Writing and Editing. Like the seminar on teaching hi-tech, this would be a smaller program that would provide training in how to write historical articles and how to deal with such technical problems as the use of source materials. On the other hand, it would also deal with the principles and techniques of editing for historical journals and other publications. One of the aims of the seminar would be jargon-free, clear, closely reasoned historical writing. Here I venture a comment as the editor in chief of the Oxford History of the British Empire and as one who spends a lot of time reading draft articles and manuscripts. This is a desperately needed program.

Those are only examples, of course, and the actual programs might turn out to be something quite different depending on interest and funding. But it is a realistic projection of what we might do. These activities will provide opportunities for teachers in the schools as well as the community colleges and universities, and the programs themselves will facilitate a dialogue between teachers and scholars. We will need state-of-the-art technology in seminar rooms and classrooms as well as in an auditorium that would be used not only for lectures but also for films and perhaps even performances. Such an auditorium would also make possible one further program that, although modest in scope, would help to make the center unique—a history film society that might meet on a weekly evening basis.

Last but by no means least, the auditorium would be used for a distinguished lecture series attracting the most original minds in the historical profession. These lectures probably should occur only once or twice a year to ensure distinction and quality. I recently heard John Hope Franklin speak on one of the seminal episodes in his life when as a boy he witnessed the race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (I still think of Oklahoma as my own state even though I'm an adopted Texan and it thus struck a chord with me.) It was an appalling story. But Franklin related it dispassionately and analytically as a chapter in the history of civil rights. It occurred to me that this would be an excellent example of the type of distinguished lecture we have in mind for the National History Center.

What sort of building do you need? At what location?

The building might resemble a classic three-story American school building, which is not necessarily our goal but it brings to mind a building of some dignity. Or, to put it in the Washington context, it might be something like the building of the American Bar Association-only less pompous because we are historians and not lawyers! I mention these examples because the center would need a building worthy of the cause and of the American Historical Association. The center would have to be located more or less in the vicinity of the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian museums (and thus within walking distance of a Metro station) to fulfill its purpose as a base of operations for historians visiting Washington and to have a central location in Washington itself. We know from our realtor, Jamie Connelly (of the C. E. Smith Company), and from our own investigations, that at any one time there are always a number of buildings on the market that might suit our needs.

We have enlisted George Hartman and Alexander Zaras, two architects of national renown who have much experience in renovating Washington buildings, for their advice and assistance in drawing up tentative plans. They believe that ideally we will need about 40,000 square feet (including underground parking space). The purchase and renovation of such a building would probably cost $15 million. This is a spacious vision of the center, with an ample reception area, an auditorium, library, dining facilities, studies for a dozen fellows, rooms for visiting scholars and research assistants, staff offices, reading rooms, seminar rooms, and so on. There would be state of the art technology throughout the building but the library or central reading room would resemble the old reading rooms of university libraries. It would not compete with Washington's first-class research libraries but would be a place for convenient reference and reading, with books and periodicals lining the walls from floor to ceiling-a haven for anyone interested in history to browse and reflect.

Depending on the success of our fundraising efforts, we might be able to jog along with a building of about 25,000 square feet by eliminating the parking and reducing the size of larger areas such as the auditorium, library, dining room, and reception area and by scaling back the number of seminar and reading rooms. Such a building might reduce the $15 million cost to about half. We could make further reductions if the building were near a federal or other property that has an auditorium or dining facilities. We have drawn up various projections that reflect the costs at different levels depending on the size of the building. But there comes a point where reduction in scale begins to interfere with the center's vision. There is an intangible involved in the planning of it all. We need dining facilities in part because of camaraderie. It's over a meal that a graduate student might meet Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or Natalie Zemon Davis. It's the informal as well as the formal part of the center that will help to shape a sense of community, a sense of historians meeting other historians-as was the case over sherry before lunch at the old Wilson Center in the Smithsonian Castle, or during tea at the Institute for Historical Research in London where historians would gather after a day in the reading room of the old British Museum. They became acquainted with each other and exchanged ideas on research projects and recent works of history. They sometimes struck up lifelong friendships. In assessing costs in relation to space, we want to be sure that we are preserving the basic functions of the center that will, among other things, sustain a sense of pride in our careers as teachers and scholars at the same time that we are making a contribution to the larger needs of society.

Sounds very ambitious. How much is it all going to cost and where are you going to find the money?

In addition to the cost of the building and its renovation, we anticipate that to get the center up and running we will need an endowment or start-up funds of about $25 million.

We hope to raise the required funds from private donors. This of course is a lot of money in view of the present economic climate, but we believe that public-spirited Americans will respond positively and that, with the lead of one or two principal donors, the rest might follow.

Not all of the $25 million need be in the form of an endowment, nor can we realistically expect to raise such an endowment immediately. Straightaway, however, the center will need an operating budget of $2 million per year to cover the costs of the salaries of the director and staff members, the fellows, and the programs. As with the cost of the building, we could, if necessary, pare back expenses and run the center at a minimal level, with an annual operating budget of only $1 million. We might figure out ways of meeting the cost of the programs by persuading foundations to sponsor, for example, the program on globalizing area studies.

Wow! Those goals are not modest! But you seem to believe in your cause. How would you sum it up, especially since you would be doing what no one else is doing?

The idea of a national history center has been around for about a hundred years. We believe that it is an idea worthy of our own time and that we can achieve our goals. The center would benefit not only historians but the American people and the world at large. To take but one instance of what we would be doing that no one else does, we would be nationally and internationally broadcasting, electronically as well as by television and radio, lectures and seminars on a regular basis. The center would provide a forum for present-day issues to be debated in historical perspective and it would foster historical education in the schools and community colleges as well as in the universities. We believe that this is a unique mission and that we are capable of fulfilling it.

—Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) was president of the AHA in 2001.

* The members of the center's AHA planning committee include James Banner, the long-standing champion of a national center for history; Albert Beveridge III, legal counsel of the AHA; Prosser Gifford of the Library of Congress; Arnita Jones, executive director of the AHA, Stanley Katz of Princeton University (and former vice president of the AHA's Research Division); and Don Ritchie of the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Senate (and former AHA Council member).