From the President's column in the January 2002 Perspectives
Wm. Roger Louis, January 2002
The question of an era in history—what we call periodization—is one of the eternally fascinating problems we ponder in both teaching and writing. We can be fairly certain that future historians will recognize the events of September 11 as the end of one age and the beginning of another. I had no idea, of course, that during my term as president of the AHA I would be a witness to such a momentous upheaval. Ironically enough, a few years ago in the Oxford History of the Twentieth Century I wrote that historians in the future might well regard the last decade of the 20th century as a golden age, at least for the countries of the West. On the whole these have also been good years for the AHA. Its staff in Washington, which experienced a certain turbulence in the 1990s, is now under the capable and stalwart leadership of Arnita Jones, our executive director, and no recent AHA president can fail to recognize the excellence of the staff itself. The AHA budget has pulled itself out of the red and general membership is stable at about 15,000. When I became president, I aimed deliberately not only to keep the ship steady but also to try to leave my mark as a reformist or innovative president. I hoped to reshape the annual meeting and to look critically at the American Historical Review. Entirely by chance, I have also had the opportunity to help with a project of fundamental importance to our profession—the creation of a National Center for Historical Studies.
Steering a stable course meant in my case sustaining the initiatives of my two immediate predecessors, Robert Darnton (1999) and Eric Foner (2000). Bob Darnton's major initiative was the Gutenberg-e project, Eric Foner's the inquiry into how best to attack the intractable problem of adjunct and part-time employment. The Andrew Mellon Foundation recently made a further grant of $980,000 to continue for another three years the Gutenberg-e prizes for electronic publication of historical monographs. On the issue of adjunct and part-time employment, a permanent committee under the auspices of the Organization of American Historians and the AHA is set to make a systematic effort to improve salaries and working conditions. (Over one-half of college history courses in the country are taught by adjunct faculty and part-time instructors, and they are notoriously overworked as well as underpaid.) The AHA in recent years has benefited from firm and purposeful leadership. I am certain that Lynn Hunt and Jim McPherson will also prove to be strong and creative presidents. In keeping the ship steady, I hope they might convey to readers of Perspectives their sense of the way in which AHA traditions are passed on from one generation to the next—as I attempted to do in my article "Historians I Have Known." In this essay as in other writings during my tenure I have emphasized that only the virtue of tolerance holds us together as an association. This is a point that to me is so important that I repeat it here: nothing is more vital than that the AHA remain representative, diverse, and tolerant of
its members' beliefs and approaches to history.
As AHA president I discovered that reform and innovation, even minor reforms, take a lot of time and effort. I suggested early on that we might do better with the production of the annual book known as the "Program," which, as will have been apparent at the San Francisco annual meeting, has been restructured into a much more coherent listing of date, time, and sponsoring organization. But I also wanted to address myself, as I've mentioned, to the two most important things that the AHA has sponsored for well over a hundred years: the annual meeting and the American Historical Review. I have expressed my views about both at length in Perspectives, but I want here to reiterate my conclusions. I believe that the creation of six presidential sessions in each annual meeting will bring prominent or distinguished historians of all ages and ranks back on to the program. We go to the annual meeting for a variety of purposes, but among them are the opportunities to learn about new research and interpretation from the leaders in our discipline. I think in recent years that the AHA has rather lost its way in keeping this preeminent purpose in mind. The presidential sessions will serve to carry forward debate on basic historical issues.
On the American Historical Review, my purpose has not been reform so much as to cheer on the editor, Mike Grossberg, and his staff. I think I am right in saying that I am the first AHA president to have paid a visit to the staff in Bloomington. It was a memorable experience, among other reasons, because I flew to Indiana shortly after the events of September 11. I wanted to convey thanks for producing a journal that is, in my view, the best general historical journal in the world. It can now be read for intellectual and aesthetic pleasure as well as for detailed historical analysis and empirical research. I hope that the AHR will continue in the direction of more historiographical reviews, and will occasionally find space for essays on seminal books or articles that have influenced the way history is written. It seems to me that there is a need for more reviews of general books and works of synthesis as well as monographs. I hope also that more books might be reviewed on Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa. But let there be no doubt about it: the AHR stands at the forefront of our profession and is the pride of the AHA.
As it happens, my major effort during my year as president has been devoted to the creation of a National Center for Historical Studies. About a year and a half ago, the AHA discovered that a Library of Congress building, the former St. Cecilia School, might be available for this purpose. The building is located at East Capitol and Sixth Streets, a five minute walk from both the Library of Congress and AHA headquarters. We have a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to plan for the renovation of the building, and we have recruited a professional fundraiser to help find the money for an endowment. If we succeed, the National Center for Historical Studies will be, I believe, among the most important things that the AHA has ever accomplished. The new center would be a place for all historians from both this country and abroad to call their home, certainly a place where lectures, seminars, and conferences are held, but above all where the sense of community—the camaraderie among fellow historians—will flourish along with pride in our discipline. It will be a place where graduate students can meet historians from Russia or India, where conversations over a cup of coffee might lead to lasting friendships as well as further research. No one at present can predict with certainty whether we will succeed, but I am proud to take part in trying to realize a vision worthy of our profession in a new historical era.
—Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is immediate past-president of the AHA.