Publication Date

January 10, 2020

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

AHA Topic

Professional Life, Research & Publications

Access to research materials—both print and digital—is crucial for any historian engaged in scholarship and teaching. For historians working outside of well-resourced colleges and universities, gaining access to these materials has become increasingly difficult, particularly with the increasing breadth and depth of commercial databases often accessible only to scholars affiliated with a well-resourced university.

This trend is an often-overlooked aspect of the changing landscape of historical research. More and more research material has been digitized by commercial database companies, who then control its dissemination. These firms rely on institution-to-institution contracts with large, well-funded university libraries. Historians working within these universities have full access, while those on the outside are excluded, placing them at a severe disadvantage in their ability to produce first-rate scholarship and excel as teachers. For a complex set of reasons, providers rarely offer individual subscriptions to scholarly databases. At the same time, contracts with vendors often make it difficult (or even impossible) for libraries to grant access to individuals outside these institutions. These structural barriers create difficult challenges for many historians.

The AHA’s 2017 survey on this issue captured the breadth of the problem. Unequal access affects historians working in a wide variety of contexts, including full-time faculty at institutions unable to afford subscriptions, part-time and irregularly employed historians, independent scholars, job candidates, and historians employed outside of higher education. Faculty with inadequate access cannot keep up with the latest scholarship for teaching and have circumscribed access to the primary sources that enliven a classroom and stand at the center of highly regarded history pedagogy. This is not only a matter of academic careers or the pursuit of what we customarily refer to as “producing new knowledge”; it is also a matter of equity in higher education. Unequal access for faculty means unequal educational opportunity for students.

For contingent faculty, uneven research access reflects another aspect of job insecurity—if they lose their job, they lose access. Many independent scholars, museum professionals, public historians, and K–12 educators share the common status of nonaffiliation with a university, which excludes them from remote access to important databases. Recent degree recipients are cut off from library access upon graduation, impeding their ability to continue research and publication to better situate them in job markets or continue their research activity regardless of where they are employed. These inequities are likely to widen in the coming years, given the growing inequality of resources among higher education institutions and the increasing recognition of the professional legitimacy of historians working across a wider spectrum of occupations.

Unequal access affects historians working in a wide variety of contexts.

As part of the AHA’s Career Diversity initiative, we have pressed history departments to articulate the purpose of their PhD program. It has been gratifying to see an expansion—however gradual—beyond what we first heard, overwhelmingly: “The purpose of our PhD program is to train the next generation of producers of new knowledge.” This formulation, however, remains either at the core or in a prominent place, even as dissemination and public culture draw increasing attention. Any PhD program that centers “training the producers of new knowledge” ought to consider its ethical obligation to provide those scholars with the requisite means, since only a small proportion (roughly 15–20 percent, on average) are likely to land in institutions that can provide access to necessary resources.

This formulation, obviously, does not include master’s degree alumni. The AHA is well aware that the considerably larger number of MA recipients relative to PhDs generates problems of greater complexity and scale. But the existence of a more difficult challenge shouldn’t deter us from moving forward. We need to explore solutions for all historians who need affordable access to digital resources.

There has been some progress. Conversations have begun among the variety of stakeholders, including vendors, libraries, researchers, and others. We will explore, for example, potential roles for public libraries or research consortia. But we also hope our own community might take some steps in addition to the resource page for independent scholars that we are developing for the AHA website.

The AHA encourages history departments to provide full library access to their own scholar alumni and to unaffiliated historians in their regions. History departments and academic units can play a positive role by supporting the scholarship of their alumni and by bringing more unaffiliated scholars into their orbit. Providing these historians a university affiliation—whether as a visiting scholar or by whatever means is feasible—will help close the gap between those with and without adequate research access. These actions will enable every historian to fully realize their potential as scholars and contributors to our discipline.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Becky Nicolaides is a councilor for the AHA Research Division. She tweets @BeckyNic7.

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