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From the AHA Activities column of the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

An Open Letter to Professor X: Please Don't Quit the AHA Because the AHR Did Not Review Your Book

Robert A. Schneider, May 2009

Dear Professor X:

Your message of resignation from the American Historical Association has been forwarded to me. I note that you are upset because the American Historical Review did not review your recent book. I regret that you have made this decision. Forgive my impertinence, but, as the editor of the journal, I would like to try to talk you out of it. To do that, however, I will have to explain something about the book review process at the AHR.

BooksAs you well know, the AHR takes on the enormous task of assessing for review all significant historical scholarship in book form. We receive over 3,000 books a year at our offices at 914 E. Atwater Ave. in Bloomington, Indiana. Out of those, we have space to review about 1,000, that is, 200 books per issue. Thus, the book review process—which entails the labor and expertise of seven graduate students who have appointments as editorial assistants, all under the direction of the reviews editor, Moureen Coulter—begins with the time-consuming and often difficult task of deciding which books to review and which not. There are several categories of publications that we do not review as a rule: textbooks, second editions or re-publications, collections of documents, most biographies, most collected editions, books pitched to a general, nonscholarly readership, and books that are largely synthetic in nature. These are long-standing guidelines, inherited from past editors and editorial boards. While we stand by them, we are, of course, open to suggestions for how we might review as many works of scholarship as possible within the space constraints of the journal.

We decided that your book fell into one of these categories. It may well be that we were mistaken in our judgment. Indeed, while many of the books we receive are easily eliminated for review because they clearly fall into one of these categories, a significant number land in a gray zone where a determination is not so easy. I can assure you that we look at these “gray” books very carefully. We collectively discuss their merits at our monthly staff meetings. In addition, our decisions are reviewed by faculty consultants and, if necessary, members of the board of editors. (The same scrutinizing is carried out for possible “Featured Review” books.) Our discussions hinge on the question of whether the book under consideration adds something new and significant to what we already know, in terms of either the information it brings to light or the interpretation it brings to bear on the material. Again, sometimes we judge incorrectly—how could that not be the case with so many books and such latitude of judgment? But I can assure you that we make a truly good faith effort to come to the right decisions, which are often agonizing in nature. When an author complains because his or her book has not been reviewed, we always reconsider the case. Sometimes, if a persuasive case can be made for reviewing a book, we reverse our decisions.

I thus invite you or your publisher to send us another copy of your book so that we might reconsider it for review.

But there is something else I would like you to consider. Allow me to be frank: It is really quite wrong of you to take out your dissatisfaction with the AHR on the AHA. To do so would be hurtful to the single most important professional organization of historians in North America; to the study, teaching, and research of history; and to you as a historian.

I can phrase my main point in several ways: Although the AHR is part of the AHA, it is certainly not all of the AHA. You should not think of the AHA as merely a delivery system for the AHR. You should not judge the AHA by what you see (and do not see) in the AHR. The AHA is so much more than a single publication (albeit a very important one). To see it in those terms would be like judging the college or university where you received your BA by the alumni magazine you receive every month.

I emphasize this point for two reasons. First, digital publication means that the AHR is available to any member of the academic community with web access to a university or college library that subscribes to the journal. If someone thinks that the main reason for belonging to the AHA is to receive its journal, there is then one likely conclusion: Why pay for something that can be consulted for free (although in this case the financial burden is merely shifted to the institution)? Second, many members open the AHR and say to themselves: “This isn’t for me. It doesn’t publish articles in my field. I much prefer to support and read a journal that contains scholarship I can use.” Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the book reviews section covers a wide and ever-expanding range of books representing the whole gamut of historical fields. We need not even dwell on the desirability of intellectually alive historians exposing themselves to new scholarship in precisely those areas outside their specialties. The fact remains that seeing the AHA strictly in terms of the AHR inevitably leads many members to allow their memberships to lapse.

This is more than unfortunate; it is wrong. Here the reasons are many, but it really comes down to this: The AHA works on behalf of all of us—teachers, students, researchers, scholars, archivists, librarians, academics, indeed anyone interested in the study of history—in ways that most members are barely aware of. Its concerns and tasks are varied; I can only allude to them in general terms: the status and accessibility of archives and documents, the teaching of history at the primary and secondary levels, academic freedom, job prospects for PhDs, best professional standards and practices, and advocacy on an ad hoc basis in areas where the interests of historians and other academics are at stake. As well, of course, the AHA publishes a range of material of a professional and scholarly nature, awards a remarkable range of annual prizes, and mounts one of the largest academic meetings in the country, an indispensable venue for historians at every stage of their careers. It does all of this for us and for the cause of history, whether we support it with our membership or not. The conclusion strikes me as obvious: Those who do not support it are getting a free ride.

One of the privileges of being the editor of the AHR is that I get to serve ex officio on the AHA Council, in the Research Division, and as an officer of the Association as a whole. As a result, not only have I gained a great appreciation for what this organization does for all of us in the profession, I have also gotten to know a number of first-rate scholars who devote their time and energy to the AHA as elected members of the Council and three divisions. These are people who do not need another line on their c.v.’s, whose reputations are secure, and who, in any case, could do more for themselves professionally by spending more time in the library or in their studies than at meetings of the AHA. But serve they do, with commitment, imagination, and hard work. In an age when civic participation has supposedly waned, when some sociologists tell us that “bowling alone” characterizes Americans’ relationship to communal or public life, this exemplary level of voluntary service to a professional organization is truly heartening. While not all of us are capable of this level of extraordinary service, we can all demonstrate our civic commitment in terms of our professional identities by becoming members of the AHA. Indeed, a robust democratic society depends upon the vitality of a range of civic associations and our willingness to support them.

Of course, the ethos of democratic liberalism does not compel citizens to belong to civic or professional associations (though they should be aware of the consequences and implications for democracy if large numbers were to withdraw from the civic realm). To borrow the formulation of Albert Hirschman, the legitimate choices are “exit, voice and loyalty,” that is, to leave, to stay and criticize from within, or to remain as a faithful, quiescent member. But, following Hirschman, I would assert that the “exit” option is more suitable to a market situation, where choice, variety, and mobility are aspects of the situation itself. In political or civic contexts, on the contrary, “exit” often serves only to deprive institutions of the criticism and activism that keep them responsive to their members or followers. While there are, of course, other institutions that serve historians in North America, I would suggest that the range of professional associations for historians hardly constitutes a market, nor are potential members customers, consumers, or shoppers. We are bound together by more than a superficial, fleeting interest in the goods and services that our organization can provide. We are bound together by intellectual principles and professional concerns that, for most of us, run very deep indeed.

This is why I hope that you will recall those principles and concerns and stick with the AHA. They surely are more important and enduring than a—perhaps contestable—decision on the AHR’s part not to review your book.

With best wishes,
Robert A. Schneider, editor,
American Historical Review