From the Executive Director

Access to Digital Resources: Mapping the Landscape of a Problem

James Grossman, April 2018

James GrossmanHistorians don’t need laboratories. For years, this truism was one way we distinguished ourselves from our colleagues in the sciences, even claiming a more democratic practice. Working capital for historical research and writing required only the skills and knowledge of a historian, a library card (preferably with access to interlibrary loan), and the hallowed tradition of free access to archives and rare book rooms. For many of us, “investment” probably meant somehow financing the purchase of a microfilm reader.

With good reason, we touted the ability of historians at community colleges and other institutions with modest libraries to advance their scholarship. Historians at research universities had a considerable advantage regarding published sources, but the terrain of the archive was generally accessible to all qualified researchers on an equal basis. Even general collections were often accessible through institutional arrangements, interlibrary loan, or simple generosity of spirit.

The advent of vast digital collections of primary sources has dramatically altered the landscape. Commercial database companies rely on institution-to-institution contracts with large, well-funded university libraries. Those working within these universities have full access, while others find themselves at a severe disadvantage in their ability to produce first-rate scholarship, to excel as teachers, and to advance their careers. Many of these collections cost too much for college and university libraries outside the R-1 corridor. In addition, pricing models discourage libraries from granting access to individuals outside their standard institutional community.

The employment landscape has changed as well. Among historians who have earned the PhD in the last two decades, only one in eight has secured a position at a research university, according to the most recent AHA data (which are still subject to some minor adjustments). The rest divide among tenured or tenure-track outside the R-1 perimeter (35 percent), “outside the professoriate” (34 percent, including 8 percent whom we haven’t located yet), and “contingent” faculty (16 percent). Unlike their counterparts a half century ago, many working in predominantly teaching institutions are there by luck of the job market draw rather than by inclination and interest. These historians remain committed to serious research and to the use of research materials in the classroom.

This means that a lot of historians are left out in the cold, or at least certainly experiencing a chill.

This means that a lot of historians are left out in the cold, or at least certainly experiencing a chill. These scholars have a problem, one that is far more visible on the AHA’s landscape than it was when the Association was dominated by research scholars at large universities. They need access to digital primary sources if they are to remain serious, active research scholars, not to mention teachers, who draw on such resources as Early English Books Online, vast collections of digitized newspapers, and a wealth of other primary sources digitized mostly by commercial enterprises.

To gauge the breadth and depth of this problem, in September 2017 the AHA distributed on social media, our online Communities space, and through the National Coalition of Independent Scholars a link to a survey gathering information about access to digital resources for historical research. Since replies to a survey that straightforwardly explores a particular problem generally skew heavily toward people who have encountered that problem, we were not surprised that the vast majority of respondents reported difficulty with access to digitized research materials.

More striking, perhaps, was the range and diversity of respondents. Approximately half of the 1,081 respondents worked in higher education, mainly as faculty, and especially at smaller, under-resourced colleges and universities. Twenty percent were the independent scholars whom we had assumed to be the bulk of the audience. A smaller number of respondents worked as public historians or K–12 teachers, in addition to historians working in government and nonprofits, along with a handful of retirees. What had begun as an inquiry into the obstacles faced by independent scholars in our discipline had revealed a much broader challenge.

Historians still use microfilm readers to view sources. But access to commercial databases is now a more pressing concern. Clemson University/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0. Image cropped. To obtain a variety of angles on possible solutions and to open the necessary difficult conversations, we next convened a session at the 2018 AHA annual meeting, with a panel of stakeholders occupying different positions on the supply and demand sides. Organized by AHA Council member Becky Nicolaides, the panel included Tula Connell (communications officer, National Council of Independent Scholars), Margaret DeLacey (editorial chair of H-SCHOLAR), Kevin Norris (chief people officer, ProQuest), Bernie Reilly (president, Center for Research Libraries), and Virginia Steele (university librarian, UCLA). We asked the panelists to identify key issues in opening pathways for access, and to speculate on what those pathways might be.

The session pointed to the divergent perspectives and the complexity of trying to serve the needs of multiple stakeholders, often with conflicting interests. That very breadth, however, also yielded a range of ideas that diverse positions and perspectives often generate. These suggestions and others can generate an agenda for further conversation and planning as we bring in other disciplines and perhaps consultants who provide expertise but not self-interest. As the American Council of Learned Societies explained in a 2011 report funded by the Mellon Foundation, “Widening Scholars’ Access to Digital Databases,” pathways toward solutions are neither easy nor straightforward. Producers and consumers of products seldom see issues of cost in the same way. What appears to be a workable approach can involve esoteric technological obstacles. It’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The AHA, in concert with colleagues in other disciplines, can explore possible roles for scholarly societies and perhaps participate in experiments directed at different corners of the problem.

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

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