From the President

The AHA and Its Publics, Part II

James J. Sheehan, March 2005

Part I of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Perspectives.

Article II of the American Historical Association's constitution states the organization's purposes:

[T]he promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information; the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public; and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history.

To the Association's founders, all of these purposes were important, but soon the first set took precedence over the others; "the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication" became the AHA's primary—although never only—mission. To be a historian meant to be a teacher of history at a college or university. Other kinds of professional historians—teachers in grammar and high schools, curators in museums, archivists, and scholars employed by public or private institutions were welcomed to join, but had reason to sense that the kind of history they practiced was not part of the Association's core mission. In time, many nonacademic historians formed their own organizations and abandoned the AHA—believing, not without reason, that it had abandoned them.

Throughout the Association's history, there have been those who regretted this trend and tried to battle against it. In this article I want to discuss four recent efforts to make the AHA more representative of, and responsive to, its many publics; all of these efforts have been discussed in earlier issues of Perspectives, but it might be useful to look at them together.

  1. The National Coalition for History (NCH) had its origins in the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, which was founded in 1976 to promote careers for historians outside of the academy. In 1982, when proposed budget cuts and various legislative initiatives seemed to threaten key institutions like the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Coordinating Committee changed its bylaws to become an advocacy organization. Two exceptionally active and effective directors, Page Putnam Miller and, since 2000, Bruce Craig, have made the NCH an eloquent voice promoting historical study in many venues. The coalition lobbies to attain adequate funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and a variety of other institutions vital for historical research and preservation. It monitors government action affecting issues such as copyright, the preservation of documents, and the freedom of information—all obviously essential for historians. The NCH "Washington Update," the coalition's monthly online report, is an indispensable source of information about policies and programs of interest to historians. From the start, the coalition has been committed to representing different sorts of historians, combining the interests and resources of both academic and public historians, and providing a forum where they can work together. The coalition is supported by the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, the American Association for State and Local History, and more than 60 other institutional members. It currently has an office in the AHA headquarters building. (For more information about the NCH, visit http://historycoalition.org/.)
  2. The National History Center (NHC) is both an old and new attempt to promote "the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public," perhaps the most neglected of the AHA's constitutionally defined goals. J. Franklin Jameson, an early leader of the Association, had tried to establish a center in Washington that could amplify historians' role in civic life. Almost a century later, Wm. Roger Louis, the Association's incoming president in 2000, committed his formidable energies to realizing Jameson's vision; Louis assembled a dedicated group of colleagues, secured the approval of the AHA Council, and raised funds to support further planning and launch some preliminary programs. This year the center sponsored several sessions at the annual meeting in Seattle; will help to support workshops on exploring and collecting history online; select the first volumes for a series, "Reinterpreting History: How Historical Assessments Change over Time," to be published by Oxford University Press; and will offer seminars for congressional staff that will provide the historical context for current policy. The National History Center is very much a work in progress; its various goals and are still taking shape, its priorities are still uncertain. Nor is it certain that it will be possible to raise the formidable amount of money necessary to realize its founders' dreams. But one thing is clear: the center represents a deep commitment, supported and encouraged by the AHA, to make the study of history and the uses of historical knowledge more vital elements in American public life. (More information on the NHC can be found on the web site.)
  3. In January 2001 the AHA Council established a Task Force on Public History, which it charged with finding ways to address more effectively "the interests and concerns of public historians both within the Association and at large, as well as ways of deepening an understanding of and appreciation for the activities of public historians within the profession." The task force was chaired by Linda Shopes, a historian at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission who was then a member of the Council, and by Victoria Harden, a historian at the National Institutes of Health who was elected to the Council in 2002. After two years of intensive work, the task force produced a report that was submitted to the Council in December 2003. The report begins by soberly noting that its "efforts at information gathering revealed public historians' sense of estrangement from, frustration with, even hostility to the organized history profession." The task force made a range of recommendations to improve this situation, urging, among other measures, a more prominent role for public historians on Association committees, in the program for the annual meeting, in the pages of the American Historical Review, and in graduate and undergraduate curricula. Like all good reports of this kind, the task force's final proposals are less like the blueprint for a building than like the itinerary for a journey, which sets out possible routes and alternative destinations. (A copy of the report is available online.)
  4. In January 2005, the AHA Council approved a major revision of the Association's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, which was prepared by the Professional Division under the leadership of the vice president for the Professional Division, William J. Cronon, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The new statement is a powerful document; the work of many hands, it nonetheless has a grace and eloquence rarely found in such collective efforts. It begins by reminding us that historians cannot claim exclusive rights over the past: "All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline, and that this is much more a strength than a weakness." This sense of the openness of the discipline leads directly to the statement's next important point: "Historians work in an extraordinary range of settings: in museums and libraries and government agencies, in schools and academic institutions, in corporations and non-profit organizations." What professional historians share is not a particular kind of employment, but rather a "self-conscious identification with a community of historians who are collectively engaged in investigating and interpreting the past as a matter of disciplined learned practice." The rest of the statement describes the core values that should inform this practice and thus provide the foundation on which historians can, in their many different ways, work to preserve, interpret, and communicate knowledge about the past. By recognizing our diversity but helping us to realize what we all share, the authors of the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct have articulated the Association's highest aspirations. I hope that every member of the AHA will take the time to read and ponder this document.

These four developments are occasions for hope, but not for celebration. There is no reason for any of us to be satisfied with history's place in American public life or with the role of nonacademic historians in the AHA. Progress on these matters will take the time and effort necessary to weave a network of connections—personal, institutional, and intellectual—across and beyond the profession. These connections can draw on what all historians have in common: a love for our wonderful subject and a deep conviction of its meaning and value. Given the chance, historians have a lot to say to the public and to one another. Among the AHA's most important tasks is to help make such conversations possible.

— James Sheehan (Stanford Univ.) is president of the AHA.