Publication Date

October 1, 1992

Post Type

American Historical Review

Members of the AHA occasionally write to the national office or to the editorial office of the American Historical Review to express their desire to review books for the AHR or their disappointment at not having been asked to review. We also receive complaints from authors and editors who wish to know why their books were not chosen for review but were instead listed in the back matter. When someone makes a specific request for information about our procedures for selecting books for review or reviewers, I write to that person with a brief explanation. On the chance that many more members have an interest in knowing this information but have not made a specific request for it, I would like to use this space to say something about it.

It might be helpful first to have an idea of the magnitude of the book-processing task of the AHR and the requirements it imposes. We receive about five thousand books each year and have the budget and personnel to review at most about twelve hundred of them. We initially separate out certain categories of books, such as documents and bibliographies, collections of personal and state papers, second editions and reprints, and textbooks, which we review only in exceptional cases. We also winnow out most of the volumes of collected essays, although we do regularly review some of these, often by way of review essays rather than the standard, single-book review. The tables of contents of collected essay volumes not scheduled for review are listed in the back pages of the AHR.

In the case of monographs, I establish a base of ninety review assignments per month. We might receive many more than that number in a month. Choices have to be made. Our staff of editorial assistants, who are experts in the fields of history that we most often deal with, do the paperwork for each book and learn enough about its contents to make informed decisions about its character and quality. They work with senior specialist consultants who advise us on the selection of books for review and on the choice of reviewers. These specialists, leading historians in all fields of history (who include members of our Board of Editors and others), work closely with our editorial assistants in making decisions about the books being considered for review.

The senior editors get involved in these choices only insofar as they concern their areas of expertise or where no other expert is readily available. My own responsibilities are limited to Russian history and general historiography and methods (or when special problems or matters of policy arise). The rest I delegate to persons more knowledgeable than I in the wide variety of fields that we serve. I Cannot therefore always say why a particular monograph was not chosen for review, except that the specialists advising us on the set of books being considered at the time found others to be of greater interest and importance.

We do nevertheless have a check against the uneven flow of books we receive over the course of a year. We retain in a pool severa1 assignment allocations for each month, and these are filled at the end of the month through a process of evaluation involving the entire book review staff. Each editorial assistant brings to this meeting books that fit the formal requirements for review but did not find a place in his or her quota for that month. We might have thirty-five such books and only twelve available assignment allocations. We consider the books as a group without reference to the fields they fall in and decide which twelve of them are most deserving of a review. The rest are listed.

The choice of reviewers is made from our extensive files of scholars active in the field of history and related disciplines. The files, which are now being computerized, consist of cards (of the kind published in connection with this article) on which scholars have listed their degrees, publications, fields of expertise; foreign languages, and current employment and address. The usual requirement for gaining inclusion in our reviewer files is the publication of one major monograph, although we do occasionally use as reviewers persons who have published only articles, especially in the case of subfields in which articles are the principal vehicle for publicizing scholarly findings. We have a variety of means for keeping. the files current. When we receive a book by an author not in our files, we create a card for that author and, in addition, send a blank card to this person (when we can find his or her address) with a request to fill it out and return it to us. We rely on our staff, on members of the Board of Editors, and on our specialist consultants to provide us with the names of active scholars who are not in our files. We periodically ask through Perspectives or at the annual meeting and in other forums that scholars update their reviewer cards currently in our files or place themselves in our inventory by filling out a card for the first time.

When a book is chosen for review, the editorial assistant who is handling the book notes the persons acknowledged by the author or authors as having assisted the project in some fashion; these persons are excluded from consideration as reviewers. The editorial assistant also reads enough of the book to be familiar with its central themes and general contents, compile a list of reviewers using the information in our reviewer file, and provides a tentative ranking of the names on the list. The assistant then calls on the help of the consulting specialist for the field in question, who may accept the ranking of proposed reviewers, reorder the ranking, or even add to the list the names of scholars about whom the assistant may not have known. The specialist also advises on the number of words for the review. An invitation review the book is then issued to the first person on the list; if that person turns us down, an invitation is issued to the second person, and so on.

The fact that a person's name is in our reviewer file does not ensure that he or she will be asked to review for the AHR. The invitations to review are issued on the basis of judgments by our staff and specialist consultants about the qualifications of the scholars in our files for reviewing a particular work. Membership in the AHA is neither a requirement nor a guarantee of selection as a reviewer for the AHR, although we do ask nonmembers who review for us to consider joining the Association. Members of the AHA are more likely to turn up in our files than are nonmembers, since we use Perspectives, AHA annual meetings, and other Association forums to recruit reviewers.

These are our procedures. If members have suggestions about how they might be improved, we would be happy to consider them. We regularly review our procedures and are willing to try other approaches that might prove fairer and more effective. But at the moment, given our resources and the exceptional demands placed on them, these are the best we have found.


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