Networks, Knots, Historians, and the Public Good
Soon after being elected president of the AHA, I thought it would be great to develop a political action network of participating historians in each of the 435 congressional districts. Wiser heads cautioned me about the difficulties of forming such a group—the drain on a coordinator's time, the need for clerical support, the problems of monitoring, and uncertain outcomes. I soon had more than enough to keep me busy, but now that I am in the last quarter of my presidency, I find myself returning to the idea. Your response to this appeal will demonstrate its feasibility.
The simplest way to begin would be to establish a listserv of e-mail addresses of those willing to represent their congressional district. Our network's historians in each district could then be sent regular bulletins on issues before Congress and matters of concern being taken up by federal executive offices. If the congressional committee members were in the historians' districts, they would be requested to mobilize a letter-writing or phone campaign. Surprisingly, these efforts work more often than not, as a recent effort demonstrates.
When the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) announced last winter a likely change of policy that would have put at risk dozens of documentary historical editing projects ranging from Thomas Jefferson's papers to those of Emma Goldman, we organized a campaign around a splendid open letter to the president and Congress, written by Ray Smock and signed by 100 historians. In addition, the affected documentary editors formed a listserv that kept them abreast of weekly developments. In the end we prevailed. U.S. Archivist John W. Carlin, who had initiated the changes, responded quickly to the publication of the open letter, endorsing a compromise proposal. "Historians protested," he said, "and we listened."
Before serving on the AHA Council, I had no idea of the broad array of concerns that come up on an almost daily basis, ranging from the appointment of the head of the National Endow ment for the Humanities (NEH) to the transfer of the Fulbright Exchange Programs to the State Department, from the funding for the NHPRC to the reworking of professional standards for those doing historical interpretations for the National Park Service.
The AHA actively participates in litigation and advocacy affecting issues such as copyright, digitizing research, and exhibition censorship—all extremely important aspects of guaranteeing that the historical record will be researched, discussed, and exhibited. Should the IRS be allowed to destroy its records? Do executive agencies come under the provisions affecting national security or the president's papers? How soon should documents be declassified? These questions all matter to us and to future historians. Every national budget has implications for the future support of research, exhibitions, openness of archives, and records preservation.
We have two sources of excellent Washington updates: one from Page Putnam Miller of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC) and the other from John Hammer of the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). The job crisis of the 1970s led to the founding of the NCC, which initially sought to cultivate job opportunities in public history. But by the 1980s the need for a much broader mandate became apparent, and the NCC became the central advocacy office for the historical and archival professions, with 53 participating organizations. Arnita Jones, Executive Director of the Organization of American Historians, was the first director of the NCC; Page Miller, who succeeded her in 1980, has ably pursued the expanded mandate.
The threat of curtailment of the NEH in 1981 inspired the creation of the NHA, which monitors closely all federal activities that affect scholarship and exhibition in the humanities. The NHA covers a broad spectrum of 52 learned societies in the humanities with several dozen associate member organizations. Both the NCC and the NHA, often cooperating, maintain an impressive presence in Washington, closely monitoring the legislative and executive processes while building links between historians (among others) and key appropriation and oversight committees of Congress, as well as the dozens of executive offices.
You are the best indicator of whether a historical political action network is too ambitious an undertaking. My idea of how we would get started would be for volunteers (435 nicely positioned across the country to be exact) to e-mail me if they would take on, say, Ohio's 2nd district or North Dakota's 1st. As knots in the net, each volunteer would regularly receive the excellent briefings from Page Miller of the NCC and John Hammer of the NHA through our listserv. When the reports indicate that a certain senator or representative should be contacted, the network historian in the particular district would then get to work alerting others and pressing them into service as telephoners or letter writers.
This would not be an official AHA listserv, but an informal network of concerned historians. We could call this the Historians' Political Action Network (that is, listserv of volunteers) or Participating Historians Action Network, which would give us PHAN. Interested? E-mail me at email@example.com.
—Joyce Appleby (UCLA) is president of the American Historical Association.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.