From the AHA Activities column of the September 2007 Perspectives
Recent Changes at the AHR
Robert A. Schneider, September 2007
There have been some recent changes at the American Historical Review. Of course, the basic mission and content of the flagship journal of the AHA are unchanged. Our goal is to publish the most interesting and original historical scholarship being produced today, and to offer the widest selection possible of book reviews of current historical literature. The venerable scholarly article remains our primary format for scholarship. And there is absolutely no reason to think this will change. Indeed, as I argued in an earlier Perspectives piece ("The Golden Age of the Article Is Now," September 2006), with digital publishing and archiving, articles now enjoy a range of distribution and ease of access that makes them more valuable than ever before, both for those who write them and for those who read them.
Even in a world where change for the sake of change seems the rule, there is no reason why a successful scholarly journal should seek to alter its course. We have not done so. But some changes, leaving the core of what we do untouched, have been undertaken. I would like briefly to discuss each of them.
One of the goals of the AHR is to offer historians new scholarship and reviews that address broad concerns, beyond those that define their particular fields, periods, and subject areas. In keeping with this goal, we have decided to reintroduce the section "Featured Reviews," which last appeared in the journal in 1996. It is no secret that most readers of the journal turn first to the book reviews in their own fields. And with the explosive growth of scholarship and increasing specialization, this is entirely understandable. How else can scholars keep up with the burgeoning historical literature? But there are some books that deserve the attention of a wider range of historians, even if their main appeal may be to specialists. We intend to make works of this sort the subject of our featured reviews. I am not speaking primarily about works of synthesis or books on theory or method (although such books might be included). Books for the "Featured Reviews" section should, because of their range, their methodological innovation, the boldness of their claims, or the novelty of the research, have something to offer to a larger number of historians. The editors, in consultation with members of the board of editors and others, will select the books to be reviewed in this section. Because these reviews are longer than the 800 words we normally allot reviewers, the number of books we are able to review is quite limited—not more than four or five an issue. Our hope, however, is that reviewers will take advantage of the more generous word limit and submit reviews that not only assess the scholarly merits of a book but also discuss the larger issues and concerns it raises. Inevitably, many worthy books will not be accorded this treatment. Undoubtedly, too, there will be cases where the books we choose will, in retrospect, prove to be less important, interesting, or otherwise appealing than we had thought. The gain, in my estimation, outweighs the risk, for we can only profit from greater awareness of the concerns and methods that cut across our profession. In any case, we will do everything we can to ensure that the books we choose for featured reviews are deserving of this special attention.
In the December 2006 issue of the AHR, we inaugurated what we hope will be an annual feature of the journal: the AHR Conversation. Inspired by a similar feature in our sister publication, the Journal of American History, it is intended to present readers with an exchange of views among a range of historians on a theme of importance and interest across the profession. Last year, six historians took part in a prolonged online discussion on the subject of "Transnational History." This year's topic is "Religious Identity and Violence." Discussions to be published as AHR Conversations are taking place as I write, over the summer months, and then will be lightly edited and annotated for publication in the December issue. In contrast to articles, which are usually deeply researched, rigorously evaluated, and extensively edited, the nature of these discussions preserves the liveliness of a dialogue, challenges participants to speak out of the comfort zone of their own specialties, and encourages them to respond to the interventions of historians with very different orientations. While our AHR Conversations will not necessarily represent original contributions to scholarship, they will, we hope, present readers with an all too rare example of historians from vastly different fields talking to each other about common concerns. We encourage readers' suggestions for future topics.
The University of Chicago Press
Since the late 1960s, the American Historical Review has been published by the AHA. And during the intervening decades, there has not been any compelling reason for us to consider changing an arrangement whereby we have essentially been self-published. As a membership-based subscription journal, we had little need for marketing. As one of the leading academic journals in the United States, if not the world, neither had we much need to promote our publication to libraries and other institutional subscribers. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the status quo could be preserved only at a very steep cost. In the new digital environment, there was the threat of eroding membership subscriptions, as members got used to accessing the journal digitally through their institutions' library services and other databases. And as institutions began to view the digital version of the AHR as the primary means of disseminating the journal to their students and faculty, the number of subscriptions to the print edition declined notably. Finally, rapidly evolving digital technology meant that our current arrangement with the History Cooperative, which has been constrained by limited technical and financial resources, put us at risk of being left behind with antiquated or inadequate Web-based capacity.
For all of these reasons, we decided to explore the possibility of striking up a partnership with a major university press. Several presses were considered. More than 18 months ago, we began serious discussions with the University of Chicago Press, the largest academic press in North America, and a press with deep experience in journal publishing. In June 2007, after many rounds of negotiations involving editorial and staff personnel in Bloomington and especially the vigorous and expert participation of AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones and Assistant Director Robert Townsend, a contract was signed and approved by the AHA Council.
We are confident that this move is in the best interests of the AHR, the AHA, and the journal's readers and subscribers. In particular, we are looking for UCP's help in two areas. First, the press has impressive marketing experience and personnel, which will enable us to maintain and perhaps even expand our distribution, especially in international markets. Second, UCP continues to invest in the latest digital technology, allowing journal content to be presented in the most up-to-date, reader-friendly, and searchable fashion. Finally, because of UCP's distinguished record of scholarly publications, we are convinced that this arrangement will in no way threaten the integrity and autonomy of the AHR. This last point needs stressing: in all of our discussions and negotiations with the University of Chicago Press, we have received repeated assurances that the press has no intention of interfering with our editorial process. The editorial offices of the AHR will remain in Bloomington, under the authority of the American Historical Association. The only change that readers will notice—aside from the addition of the name and logo of the University of Chicago Press to the AHR's cover and spine—will be a more attractive and searchable digital version of the journal's content. The October 2007 issue should be the first to appear under this new arrangement with UCP.
So some things have changed at the AHR, it is true. But more things have stayed the same—chief among them our commitment to the best, the most interesting, and the most innovative historical scholarship. Send us your best work!
—Robert A. Schneider is the editor of the American Historical Review. He can be reached at email@example.com.