Reaching beyond Historians: Scholars in Civil Society

Sandria B. Freitag, October 1998

In September this column focused on programmatic and professional collaborations built by a historians' umbrella organization to expand its reach. When the key issues are shaped by history research and learning, our partnerships connect historians in various institutional settings. Sometimes, of course, we need to reach beyond historians—as the part-time/adjunct project has done, with other scholarly societies.

The same distinction holds for collaborations to advance public understanding of the policy issues that affect teaching and research (or, phrased more broadly, the creation and dissemination of new knowledge). In some cases, we work with historians on issues that are history-specific: we have been especially effective on K–12 issues working through the National History Education Network (NHEN) and on archival and library issues working through the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC). When the AHA Council passed its advocacy plan in January 1996, however, it set in place a much broader frame, recognizing that most significant public interest issues would require us to reach beyond historians, forming broader coalitions that could have a much larger impact on the decisions and priorities adopted by American civil society and its government.

Two of the key issues that have occupied much of our advocacy energy have been intellectual property (as being rewritten for a digital environment) and support for research (especially the support for the National Endowment for the Humanities and Title VI, area studies legislation). The coalitions in which we have participated on these issues illustrate why reaching beyond historians is so important a strategy: the current "state of play" for these two issues measures for us both the potential success and the future need to continue this broad-coalition strategy.

The Circulation of Information in Civil Society

It seems inevitable that some piece of intellectual property legislation will pass this year, ostensibly to extend U.S. support to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Treaty. This is true despite the fact that a number of analysts have argued that new legislative language is unnecessary and that the provisions in the current law relating to print will cover all exigencies in electronic communication as well. Arcane though almost all of this legislation appears, provisions adopted now will have profound effects on how we teach, research, and communicate about our work. Even more important for the functioning of an open and democratic civil society will be the effect of new legislation on the traditional balance of fair use protections (which ensure the continuous accessibility of information to society at large) with property protections (which provide the financial incentives for creators to put their work into the hands of others). Thus the stakes are high, prompting historians to seek collaborators in shaping the intellectual world they will occupy in the future.

The AHA works in a series of ever-widening concentric circles on intellectual property issues. These circles support each other. The smallest and closest to the AHA's center helps us explore the implications of the issues and define directions that protect the mission of the Association and its service to the field. The middle circle helps us relate those directions to a more encompassing context of "cultural" activity writ large, in which what we do as scholars connects up to the other contributions of cultural producers concerned to understand and interpret developments in our society. The largest circle enables us to take these shared values and enterprises and translate them into statements for public consumption and language that can be used in legislation. Taken together, all three enable an umbrella organization like the AHA to serve its members, the field, and the larger society in a way that protects the circulation of information and debates the issues of the day to ensure an independent civil society.

The closest circle is filled by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), which brings scholarly membership societies and library organizations together to define and act on shared interests and causes about which we want to educate the public. (To great effect, it has also enabled us to work with the Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges at critical moments.) Perhaps the most important success achieved through NHA has been the Statement of Principles published last year, which provides a general context in which to identify the key values, activities, and tactics that will protect the public policy concerns of the educational world (see Perspectives October 1997, pp. 7-8; the AHA web site at http://www.historians.org; or the NHA web site at http://www.nhalliance.org).

The second circle is that provided by the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), which provides a web space and key activities for exploring the policy statements, good practices, and emerging issues of a universe larger than the scholarly societies—this one also encompasses contemporary arts and performance organizations, museums, key players like the Getty Trust, the Society for American Archivists, and so on. The very presence of NINCH has facilitated better communication among like-minded cultural organizations who had had no way to consult before. Now that it exists, we are also finding new uses for it, for instance as catalyst for bringing scientists and humanists together around the design and applications of new technologies (and their funding!). This circle of communication soon will move far beyond advocacy, but our initial successes in consulting together on legislative issues of mutual concern have built a strong base from which to take off.

The third circle, the Digital Futures Coalition (DFC), brings all of these potential participants together with others (such as software producers) interested in keeping information accessible and technology innovative on the web. The DFC concentrates on producing crucial legislative language and public relations documents articulating the shared positions adopted by coalition members. It is to the successes achieved by the DFC that I especially direct readers' attention in this article, for only with the work of the DFC are we achieving a modicum of legislative victory.

At the time of writing, two bills must be reconciled as the final process in legislating a new environment for intellectual property in a digital age—H.R. 2281 and S. 2037. The Senate bill was passed back in May; it did not include in any real way the provisions identified by our coalitions as essential for the free flow of information and the balance between protections for fair use and property rights. Much, therefore, will be riding on the version just recently passed in the House, H.R. 2281, and the deliberations of a Senate-House conference committee, likely to take place sometime in September. It is largely through the hard work of the DFC that the House bill contains the provisions we can rely on, although the bill by no means reflects the best new universe we all worked so hard to achieve (see Perspectives, March 1998, pp. 9-10). In particular, modifications of the draft legislation focused on DFC's argument that new legal protections for copyright owners (including new protections against unauthorized "circumvention" of technological protection measures) must not come at the cost of citizens' traditional "fair use" privileges. The resulting House bill does discuss fair use directly (something not true of the original bills put forward by the administration) and leaves enough room for technological developments as they occur in future. The House bill also includes some protections for libraries, archives, and nonprofit entities in their functioning in this world.

Thus, while not ideal, the provisions of H.R. 2281 appear to be the best hope we have at this time that we will be able to research, teach, and communicate with something approaching the freedom we enjoyed under the (print) copyright legislation. Much additional effort will be required by the coalitions to ensure that the provisions of 2281 are retained during conference.

Protecting the Humanities and Support for Research

The second major issue we continue to work on through coalitions encompasses the support by the broader society of the research essential to understanding the world we live in. Over the last several years, this issue has taken form, especially, of protection against attack on the National Endowment for the Humanities and extension of the legislation for area studies research, language training, and education (Title VI). Viewed in the longer run, both have been relatively successful, although our measures for success suggest just how imperiled these issues (especially NEH) were! They suggest, as well, how much effort will be required in the future.

Once again, our central circle has been provided by the NHA, which has taken on some of the functions of the other two circles, as well, regarding the NEH. From a position in 1994–95 where it seemed likely that the endowment would be closed down along with the NEA, we have moved to a position in which it has been steadily (if woefully inadequately) funded, where proposals to defund it have been repeatedly defeated, and where real education of lawmakers has given the NEH its own identity distinct from the NEA and appreciated by solid majorities in each arm of Congress.

Two challenges define our future range of activities needed on behalf of NEH. The first is to make the case clear and compelling that the range of activities so appreciated by Congress and the public—especially preservation efforts, seminars for K–12 and community college teachers, public programming by the state humanities councils, even regional centers—cannot provide real value to society without research at their heart. Preserved materials need to be there not as cultural icons, but as sources for meaning about the past and the future. Opportunities for teachers change teaching and learning because they link those functions to the fundamental activity in each discipline--research. Public programming rests, first and foremost, on discoveries about the past and present rooted in original research.

The second challenge relates to funding for these kinds of activities: while virtually every other agency of the federal government has begun enjoying solid growth in their budgets, the endowment remains at a steady state that reflects a staggering erosion of programming support over the last decade. The endowment has been hard at work leveraging that funding by attracting other sources of support, and it will have a good track record for demonstrating what federal money can do as leverage. But the fundamental argument we must make for the future is that federal support for a nationally conducted humanities program benefits our society quite disproportionately to the amount of money invested. Our work in coalitions must help us refine a set of appeals that can be pursued through coherent organization (amongst our partners) in the districts and national offices of elected representatives.

Through these kinds of coalitions, focused on foundational issues affecting the future, the AHA has been an active participant—helping to make a real difference in the way civil society sees its priorities and shapes its values. From isolated historians we have become full partners in the nonprofit world's contribution to a well-informed society. Once again, collaboration enables our umbrella society to reach beyond the narrow confines of a specialist organization into the larger world.