Publication Date

March 1, 1999

Perspectives Section

From the President

The book has been pronounced dead so often that it must be enjoying excellent health. It has remarkable staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex, three or four centuries after the birth of Christ, it has proven to be a superb machine—great for packaging information, easy to thumb through, ideal for storage, and resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand. And its handiness has made it the basic tool of learning for hundreds of years.

Why then all the fuss about electronic communication, or e-books, according to the current jargon? Why the rush to digitize everything? Why did I end my last column with a promise to devote this one to a program for electronic monographs?

At issue is not the durability of the printed codex nor the validity of the craze for computers, but rather a set of problems that threaten a special kind of book, the scholarly monograph. The price of periodicals, the constraints on library budgets, and the economic pressures on university presses are making it nearly impossible for scholars to publish in certain fields, and the difficulty is greatest for those with the greatest need to overcome it—that is, the recent PhDs who must convert their dissertations into monographs to get tenure, or the adjunct teachers who must publish a book to break into the tenure track.

Those problems overlap and intersect in ways that rule out simple solutions. Electronic publishing may have looked like the answer to everything 10 or 20 years ago, but it has lost much of its original appeal. I would distinguish three phases in its past: an initial phase of utopian enthusiasm, a period of disillusionment, and a new tendency toward pragmatism. At first we thought we could create an electronic space, throw everything into it, and leave the readers to sort it out. Then we learned that no one would read a book on a computer screen or wrestle through heaps of printouts. Now we believe we can design a specific variety of scholarly book for a certain kind of reading.

One version of the pragmatic approach won’t work, in my opinion. It involves a leap of faith in the effectiveness of the Invisible Hand so dear to economists. Let the entrepreneurs slug it out in the marketplace, we are told, and the good search engines will drive out the bad. This argument may be valid for some kinds of consumer goods, perhaps even for the “consumption” of trade books, considering the success of enterprises like But for those who worry about the production of scholarly monographs, the argument smacks of Micawberism: do nothing, and something might turn up. Certainly, we can dump unlimited numbers of dissertations onto the web. Several programs exist for providing this service, and it is a genuine service—it makes research available to readers. But this kind of publication will never impress a tenure committee, nor will it bridge the gap that separates a raw dissertation from a finished book.

The “value added” to a PhD thesis by a good university press can hardly be overestimated. Peer review, editorial criticism, guided rewriting, page design, production, marketing, publicity—a whole array of professional skills and technical capacities make the monograph a very different product from a dissertation. But the monograph, not the book, is an endangered species. In some fields and at some presses, it is already extinct. Instead of waiting for the Invisible Hand to rescue it, we should take the initiative and revive the scholarly monograph by creating a new kind of book—yes, if the term must be used, an e-book.

The electronic book offers new possibilities to authors, seasoned professionals as well as newly minted PhDs. Anyone who has done long stints of original research knows the feeling: If only my reader could have a look inside this dossier, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could pursue that trail through the archives, despite the detour from my central argument. If only I could show how themes interweave through diverse bodies of documents, even though the patterns extend beyond the bounds of my narrative. Not that books should be exempt from the imperative of trimming an argument down to its most elegant shape. But instead of using the argument to close a case, they could open up new ways of making sense of the evidence, new possibilities of apprehending the raw material behind the finished surface of a narrative, a new consciousness of the complexities involved in construing the past.

I am not advocating the sheer accumulation of data, nor arguing for links to data banks. Hyperlinks can merely be an elaborate form of footnoting. Rather, I am defending the notion of an electronic book that would be structured in layers, like a pyramid. The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly different kinds, each set off by short, interpretive essays. A fourth layer might be historiographical, with selections from, and discussions of, previous scholarship. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion, a model syllabus, and course packets. And a sixth layer could contain readers’ reports, exchanges between author and editor, and letters from readers, which would provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different publics.

A new book of this kind would elicit a new kind of reading. Some readers might be satisfied with a quick run through the upper narrative. Others might want to read vertically, pursuing certain themes deeper and deeper into the supporting documentation. Still others might navigate in many directions, seeking connections that suit their own interests or reworking the material into constructions of their own. In each case, the relevant texts could be printed and bound according to the specifications of the reader. The computer screen would be used for sampling and searching, whereas concentrated, long-term reading would take place by means of a conventional codex.

Far from being utopian, this project is designed to meet the needs of the scholarly community in pragmatic fashion by attacking them at the spot where the current problems intersect. It is an Archimedean point, one where the right amount of leverage can pry things apart so that problems come unstuck and we can all breathe easier. I don’t mean that there is a single solution to everything, but that by pushing in the right direction, the AHA can use its weight to provide relief. Let me explain.

The AHA lacks money but it possesses authority. By sponsoring a series of prize electronic monographs, it could set standards for electronic publishing in general. By soliciting foundation grants, it could encourage university presses to publish in fields that are economically unprofitable but intellectually rich. By awarding its prizes to recent recipients of the PhD, scholars, it could help beginning scholars overcome the obstacles to publication. By legitimizing electronic publishing, it could dispel the notion, prominent among the older generation, especially in tenure committees, that electronic publications do not count as real books. And by making the most of the medium, it could contribute to a new conception of the book itself as a vehicle of knowledge.

Those goals now seem to be within our reach, thanks to a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. I am therefore pleased to announce a prize competition for the best dissertations in areas where the monograph seems most clearly to be endangered. The AHA invites the chair of every department with a Ph.D. program to nominate two dissertations defended within the last three years. This spring the AHA will name a jury to award six prizes a year, including one for the best dissertation or first-book manuscript by an independent historian—that is, someone whose research, unlike that of full-time faculty, is not supported by an institution. Each prize will consist of a $20,000 fellowship, which is to be used for converting the dissertation into a first-rate electronic monograph, and also of the publication itself, which will be produced by Columbia University Press, transmitted through the World Wide Web, and accessed primarily through site licenses in research libraries.

The AHA will explain the modalities of the competition in announcements published in Perspectives and other places. As plans now stand, it will restrict the competition each year for three years to the following areas, where university presses have found it particularly difficult to publish monographs:

  • In 1999: Colonial Latin America, Africa, and South Asia
  • In 2000: Europe before 1800
  • In 2001: Diplomatic and military history, not primarily of the United States

A panel of three senior historians will judge the entries. If necessary, they may send some of the texts for review to specialists, whom they can identify by the database of reviewers kept by theAmerican Historical Review. But the panelists will arrive at their own decisions and explain the reasons for them in prize citations, which will function in effect as readers’ reports for the publisher of the winning dissertations.

The AHA will celebrate the winners with a great deal of fanfare at its annual meeting, and it will publicize their work extensively in its publications. On their side, the authors will commit themselves to transforming their dissertations into electronic monographs of the highest possible quality, though the finished product need not be as elaborate as the model sketched above. They may use their fellowships to buy released time from their teaching or to do additional research. But they will be expected to concentrate on rewriting the text and on adapting it to the electronic format under the guidance of special editors at the university press.

For its part, the press will make the most of its capacity for adding value to the original text, both by normal editorial work and by developing electronic expertise and infrastructure. The AHA appointed a committee of 10 specialists to investigate this aspect of the program. Their reports led us to conclude that all the monographs should be entrusted to a single press, which will receive enough of a subsidy to cover start-up costs and to train special staff. By the end of three years, it should have learned a great deal from the experience, the lessons should begin to spread through the publishing industry, the AHA Prize Monograph Series should have established itself in the holdings of research libraries, the authors should be making their way in the world of learning, and the learned world should have acknowledged the legitimacy of a new kind of book.

That admittedly sounds utopian, and I am trying to be pragmatic. I should therefore warn against expecting too much too soon. The electronic book prizes will form only a very thin edge of a very small wedge. But if applied correctly, they could crack open a tough set of problems and clear the way for larger enterprises. They will serve as a pilot project for a broad program of electronic publishing that the American Council of Learned Societies is now putting together. Other organizations are considering similar plans. The electronic space is out there, waiting to be filled by something more substantial than the junk produced by the consumer industries. It has room for a new kind of publication, one that will not replace the book but that will revive it and send it into orbits beyond the galaxy of Gutenberg.

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Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton

Harvard University