Publication Date

November 9, 2022

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Sophia Germer

standard query in the world of association leadership is “What’s the value proposition?” In other words, why should anyone join your organization? A half century ago, the answer most common at the AHA and its peer scholarly associations was not complicated: a subscription to the journal (not only to read but to display prominently along bookshelves as confirmation of identity), participation in the annual meeting, and access to academic job advertisements. Perhaps it was just something that one did to mark professionalism, though I somehow doubt this was calculated in an explicit value proposition.

The calculus of the AHA’s value proposition has changed. Historians with access to a research library no longer need to be AHA members to read the American Historical Review in the comfort of their own homes, or even while traveling. Instead of reaching to one’s shelves for back issues, one merely taps a keyboard. The annual meeting remains a draw, but unlike many peer organizations, the AHA does not require membership to submit a proposal. Nor do we sock nonmembers with the registration equivalent of out-of-state tuition. Even the publication you are reading now is “open access,” a euphemism for “free of charge.”

One caveat bears noting: not all historians have access to a research library. For our colleagues who lack this essential resource, the AHA can and should endeavor to provide that direct material benefit. Access to the extraordinarily rich corpus of the AHR is only a start. We were involved in the negotiations that led to half-price subscriptions to JSTOR for members of scholarly associations. We continue to search for solutions to this problem of scholarly equity and will maintain the quest in collaboration with other members of the American Council of Learned Societies.

The current menu of individual member benefits, while sufficiently impressive that none of our staff could enumerate them without extensive notes, is not likely to elicit an aha moment, a realization that “I must be a member of the AHA if I’m going to be a historian.” Members of the search committee that hired me a dozen years ago might recall my fantasy in that regard: a membership site that combined the features of LinkedIn, Facebook, Ancestry.com, and Amazon—imagine “teachers who assigned this article also assigned . . .” I hoped to make AHA membership a necessary component of every historian’s teaching and research tool kits through access to a particular combination not only of shared information (e.g., syllabi) but also of shared networks, communities, and resources.

Someday perhaps. And even without an elegant database, we are aware that information, networks, communities, and resources are important benefits of AHA membership. These services have value, and our staff work hard to maximize their accessibility and quality. But it is undoubtedly possible to practice as a historian—and do it well—without membership in the AHA.

So why pay dues—even dues that are, in the context of comparable organizations, both low and income scaled? It’s possible that our considerable list of publication discounts and access draw some members into the fold. Increasingly, we have been creating and improving a robust set of professional development programs, both online and in person. Our annual meeting is no longer dominated by many people reading papers while many others anxiously interview for jobs; instead, we emphasize conversation, professional development, community building, and a general orientation toward the many ways of being a historian.

This is what you’ll find on our website: a wide and deep set of resources built on the premise that there are many ways to be a historian. But we are aware that these are incentives, not imperatives for individual historians. Some of these resources are available elsewhere, even if not all in one place, and many historians require only a narrow slice of what we can provide in order to do their work.

All of this still rests on a quid pro quo. You pay your dues, and you get some things. Maybe not a tote bag, but all sorts of other stuff that has value to you as a historian. But what happens if we step back from an individual orientation altogether? What happens when we suggest that the value proposition cannot be assessed without attending to the value of your AHA membership to some broader community or aspect of public culture?

Over the last five years, the AHA has expanded its role in public life and culture, dramatically increasing its advocacy efforts, as well as the visibility of that work—work we cannot do without members: not only your dues but also your volunteer energy and ideas, and our ability to invoke our membership numbers in conversation with public officials.

I offer only a selection of recent AHA initiatives that have this broad reach and depend on membership support in some fashion:

  • Teaching History with Integrity, an initiative that promotes the principles and practices of historical work in the face of challenges from state legislators and ideologically driven activists hostile to history curricula that are consistent with mainstream American historiography. Through this initiative, we support evidence-based professional history by providing the research necessary to understand what is actually being taught in American classrooms, short videos addressing controversies over teaching histories of American racism, and informational materials for legislators and school boards. AHA staff have testified before the Texas State Board of Education and been interviewed about curriculum development in South Dakota. We have been asked quietly in other states to participate in standards revision, and we are prepared to defend the professional integrity of our discipline and teachers across the United States and internationally, especially at the request of members.
  • Participation in lawsuits ranging from preventing the shuttering of a vital National Archives facility in the Pacific Northwest (plaintiff) to retaining records relating to law enforcement along our borders, to maintaining standards of historical scholarship in the adjudication of such issues as abortion rights and Native American sovereignty. Our co-plaintiffs and collaborators have included state attorneys general, Native tribes and community organizations, other history associations, and public watchdog nonprofits.
  • Letters to colleges and universities and on behalf of history departments threatened with elimination or consolidation into larger entities that would diminish the institutional influence of the department chair and faculty as well as the overall presence of history in the curriculum. We have found that sending copies of these letters to local media enhances the effectiveness of these efforts.

As the largest organization of its kind in the world, chartered by the United States Congress, the AHA is uniquely situated as the nation’s primary advocate for our discipline. Everything has a history, and we encourage the presence of historians and historical thinking in all aspects of public life and policy. We avoid partisan politics; our advocacy is driven by the interests of our discipline rather than any political position. But we do not shy away from controversy. In 2021, for example, we opposed the misguided attempt of the San Francisco school board to rename 44 public schools; nearly all other organizations kept their distance. The breadth and depth of this advocacy is unique to the AHA among history organizations.

For members reading this in print or through an AHA digital portal, thank you for your continuing support. For the many online readers who are not members, I hope you’ll consider joining this diverse community of historians, a community whose value proposition cannot be reduced to a quid pro quo.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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