Published Date

February 1, 1999

Resource Type

AHA Archival Document

AHA Topics

AHA Initiatives & Projects

This resource is part of the AHA’s reports on the Gutenberg-e Program over the course of its ten years from conception to completion.

 

Approved by the AHA Council January 1999, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in February 1999.

The American Historical Association requests support for a three-year program to promote the publication of high-quality electronic monographs. It would organize a nation-wide competition for six prizes, to be awarded each year for the best dissertations in fields where the monograph appears to be endangered—that is, fields or sub-disciplines in which presses are reluctant to publish. One prize would be reserved for the best dissertation or first-book manuscript by an independent historian—that is, someone whose research, unlike that of full-time faculty, is not supported by an institution. The prize would consist of a $20,000 fellowship to be used for the perfection of the book and of the publication itself, which would be prepared by a university press, transmitted through the World Wide Web, and accessed primarily through site licenses in research libraries, although it might also be available in pay-per-view stations.

 

Purpose

The program is not intended simply to reward excellence in scholarship with yet another prestigious prize but rather to use prestige—the bluest of ribbons awarded by the grandest of juries with the full authority of the AHA behind it—to set a high standard for electronic publishing. We also hope to encourage scholarship in fields where university presses are having trouble covering their costs, and we want to help younger scholars who are finding it difficult to break into print. By legitimizing electronic publishing, the AHA may break down the resistance of tenure committees and others who refuse to consider electronic publications as real books. And by making the most of the medium, it may contribute to a new conception of the book itself as a vehicle of knowledge.

Design

The AHA would announce the prize competition in its web site, in its own publications, notably Perspectives, its monthly newsletter, and in other periodicals such as the Chronicle of Higher Education. Using its listserv, which links it to nearly every history department in the country, it would invite the chair of every department with a PhD program to nominate one dissertation defended within the last three years. It also would invite applications from independent and public historians by working with organizations like the National Council on Public History, the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, and the National Adjunct Faculty Guild.

The competition will be restricted each year to two areas of historical scholarship in which it has been difficult to publish monographs. Those areas probably will be:

In 1999: Colonial Latin America, Africa, and East Asia

In 2000: Europe before 1800

In 2001: Diplomatic and military history, not primarily in the U.S.

Two panels of three senior historians will judge the entries. If necessary, they may send some of the texts for review to specialists, whom they can identify from the database of reviewers kept by the American Historical Review. But they will arrive at their own decisions and explain the reasons for them in prize citations, which will function in effect as readers’ reports for the publisher of the winning dissertations. The judges will produce a ranked short list of the winners, so that if the first author on the list declined the prize—that is, preferred to publish in the conventional manner—it could go to the next author, and so on down the line. The authors would commit themselves to publish their work electronically by a contract signed with a university press, which the AHA would select as the publisher of the entire series, but the contract could provide for later publication in codex form. A small number of copies would also be printed and bound for gifts and reviewing. Throughout the selection process, the dominant consideration should be the excellence of the work. The reports of the panels would serve as a guarantee that the prize books satisfied the highest standards of professional judgment.

The AHA would celebrate the winners with a great deal of fanfare at its annual meeting, and it would publicize their work extensively in its publications. They would receive a $20,000 fellowship with the understanding that they would devote the money to the preparation of the best possible electronic book. They could buy a semester’s leave from their university and do some additional research. But they would be expected to concentrate on rewriting the text and on adapting it to the electronic format under the guidance of special editors at the university press.

In order to transform the raw dissertations and “final” drafts into finished books, we would want to make the most of what university presses refer to as “value added”—that is, their editorial work, copy reading, and design as well as electronic expertise. Seen from the viewpoint of a press, this experience could also have advantages, because it might open the way toward the development or improvement of an electronic publishing program. We hope, in fact, that the benefits would spread through the publishing industry as well as the academic world. But to maximize the benefits, we have been advised against distributing the monographs among several presses or creating a consortium of presses. Therefore, we propose to entrust the program to one university press, one that would be willing to make an important commitment to it. This publisher would receive a subvention, which it could spend in whatever manner it judged to be effective, such as hiring and training staff. We would favor a three-year arrangement in order to provide continuity and build up a special list: The AHA Prize Monograph Series published with the imprint of the university press. The press would handle marketing and selling; and it also would be responsible for the delivery of the work, although that technical function could be delegated to the Research Library Group (RLG).

Whether done by the university press or RLG, the delivery functions would include the following:

  1. Guidelines for authors: the development of a style sheet to guide authors and editors in standardized markup consistent with a document-type definition (DTD).
  2. Design of an electronic space: a storage, search, and retrieval mechanism with the possibility of links to other documents and databases. Readers must be able to navigate within the document, and browsers on the Web should be able to consult a synopsis, a table of contents, and perhaps a sample chapter.
  3. Delivery and sales: We expect the university press, as publisher, to sell the package of six prize books to research libraries for a set fee, leaving the libraries to arrange printing for their readers. RLG could serve as an intermediary, providing access control, scheduling fees, and managing license arrangements. But the press may prefer to handle these functions itself and also to make provision for pay-per-view reading. This aspect of the program should remain flexible. The technology is changing rapidly, and recent experience with innovations like DocuTech suggests that the printing and binding problems can be solved in the near future.
  4. Cataloguing: RLG can guarantee that the monographs are correctly catalogued and that the catalog information is diffused through bibliographic utilities like RLIN, which it owns and operates.
  5. Archiving: RLG backs up its online files and stores offline copies in secure, remote sites. This function is especially important, because libraries have not yet developed a secure means of preserving electronic texts.

The university press should be free to decide whether or not to delegate these functions to RLG. However they are handled, they should provide valuable experience in the development and costing of infrastructure.

Additional Elements

The electronic prize monographs should serve as a pilot project, which would provide information about the feasibility of electronic publishing throughout the social sciences and humanities. As such, it should be coordinated with the broader program now being developed by the American Council of Learned Societies, and it could be extended or expanded in different directions. For example, the AHA and the ACLS could recruit some eminent historians to publish electronic monographs in tandem with the prize books. If a Bernard Bailyn or a Natalie Davis agreed to do so, they would contribute mightily to the legitimizing function at the heart of this proposal. The inducement in such cases would not be money but rather the opportunity of helping to create a new kind of book, one with extensive documentary linkages and navigating possibilities.

It also might be possible to connect the prize books with other AHA publications, making them all available to libraries as a single package wrapped together by electronic links. These publications could include: a new individual member directory covering 15,000 historians and carefully indexed to include all current research; the AHA Guide to Historical Literature, currently published by the Oxford University Press; the AHA pamphlet series, now being published individually by the AHA and in book form by the Temple University Press; Perspectives; reprints of reviews from the American Historical Review (or reprints accompanied by special review essays in an “AHA Review of Books”); and perhaps back-list or out-of-print works. Of course, all such projects would involve complex negotiations with owners of copyright; but they could be mutually reinforcing, making a whole much greater and more viable financially than the sum of its parts.

We mention these possibilities, not as ingredients of the present program but as potential elements that might be grafted onto it in the future or that might be incorporated into other programs—of the ACLS or of other agencies such as the Association of Research Libraries and the National Science Foundation, which are also attempting to promote electronic publishing. (Two programs currently being developed are known as Building Blocks and Historical Studies Distribution Network.) At this stage in the development of the AHA prize program, it seems preferable to keep the monographs relatively simple. The judges should concentrate on selecting scholarship of the highest quality, and the authors should be encouraged to convert their dissertations into electronic books in a straightforward manner—that is, without elaborate links to documents and databases, or “bells and whistles,” according to the jargon of the e-people.

Time Frame

Last January the Council of the AHA approved a preliminary version of this program, which also had been cleared through the various divisions and committees of the AHA. Joseph Miller, president of the AHA, then appointed a committee of ten, chaired by Robert Darnton, president-elect, to study all aspects of the program and to come up with a final version. The committee, composed of representatives from university presses, libraries, RLG, and research scholarship, held extensive discussions by e-mail and telephone. Five of its members wrote position papers on the most difficult questions. Those papers generated a further discussion and the agenda for a meeting, which was held in Washington on October 10. Despite some disagreement over details, the meeting produced a clear consensus on the general shape of the program. The current proposal expresses that consensus, modified by a final round of debate among six publishers: Sanford Thatcher, Penn State Press; Colin Day, University of Michigan Press; Kate Wittenberg, Columbia University Press; John Ackerman, Cornell University Press; Lynne Withey, University of California Press; and Edward Barry, Oxford University Press.

If funding is obtained, this program will be submitted for approval by Council at the AHA meeting next January. Because Council has been informed at every stage of the process, it seems unlikely that the program will encounter serious opposition. Therefore, the competition could be announced early in 1999, and the prizes could be awarded to the winners at the AHA meeting in Chicago in January 2000. The first books might be published a year after that.

To be sure, this calendar does not leave much time for assessing as well as developing the program. Some method of assessment seems desirable, perhaps a report by an independent committee or the Association of American University Presses (AAUP). Even so, it may take several years before it is possible to judge whether the prize program provides a model worthy of emulation in other disciplines and by other publishers. We can accomplish a great deal in three years, but we may well want to apply for a renewal of the grant in 2001.

Issues and Problems

The multiple purposes of the program—to promote electronic publishing, rescue the endangered monograph, and ease the difficulties of young scholars—correspond to a set of problems that interlock at the center of academic life. Those problems concern library budgets, university presses, and the tenure process; but they cannot be unlocked by a single device. If it relieves pressure in one area, our proposal may make life easier in the others; but it also raises the danger of trying to do too many things at once or of working at cross purposes. Several members of the committee warned about the need to define priorities, and the committee as a whole thought that the development of first-rate electronic monographs should stand out as our top priority.

When the committee began its work, we believed we could easily identify the fields in which the monograph is endangered. Sanford Thatcher of the Penn State Press took an informal poll of fourteen university press directors. He confirmed that presses were reluctant to publish in fields such as African and colonial Latin American history. But he turned up so many exceptions to this rule that he concluded no field could be written off entirely as a disaster area. One press director explained, “Over half of everything that is worth doing is endangered.” But neither he nor any other publisher could measure degrees of endangerment with much precision or assign them with much accuracy to specific fields. In fact, the very notion of fixed and stable fields now looks dubious. A book about popular religion in seventeenth-century Peru, which belongs on the face of it to an extremely endangered field, colonial Latin America, might sell well among students of religion, popular culture, and anthropology. Peter Givler, president of the AAUP, confirmed this view of the difficulties and warned that the AAUP would not complete its current survey of the endangered fields in the near future. If the AAUP produces a clear map of fields, marked off by warning signs about danger, we could modify our program accordingly. For the present, however, we think it best to concentrate on a few areas where the difficulties are greatest and to avoid subjects that are flourishing on the market place, such as modern America, the Civil War, and gender studies.

The committee also debated what it called the “critical-mass” issue raised by the problems of marketing the books. The publishers and librarians on the committee warned that a half-dozen books on subjects scattered over the entire historiographical landscape might not look tempting to buyers in research libraries, especially if the price were high. A series limited to a single subject—Renaissance studies, for example—would probably appeal to an acquisitions bibliographer in a research library, but we want to spread the subjects around enough to attract a broad constituency within the history profession. By restricting the competition to two fields and changing the fields each year, we hope to satisfy the needs for both focus and diversity. We have no illusions about proposing a set of texts with enough affinities in subject matter to create hypertext links within the group of prize winners. (According to one rule of thumb, it takes 500 books in a database before readers benefit from online cross-searching.) But if this works as a pilot project, it could open the way for other, larger endeavors such as the program to be developed by the ACLS. In the long run, we should be able to develop some important linkage.

At this moment, however, we stand at the starting line of a short run, and we are certain to encounter difficulties. In fact, we have already encountered them. Three kept reappearing in our discussions with publishers:

  1. Despite some useful experiments, this sort of enterprise has not been adequately tested and involves a great deal of guesswork.
  2. The best-informed guesses are mutually inconsistent, at least in some important details.
  3. Despite their discrepancies, all estimates indicate that electronic monographs could be expensive to produce, especially if they are heavily loaded with bells and whistles.

But the Columbia University Press, which has considerable experience with electronic publishing, assures us that it can put produce a lean and viable program. Its estimates form the basis for the budget that follows.

What to conclude? We dare not make promises about blue ink and bottom lines. But we can put together a feasible program, one that will provide a start toward solving a set of problems at the heart of scholarly life in this country. At the very least, this program will generate the knowledge necessary to get a better understanding of those problems. But we expect it to do more. It should open the way to a new kind of scholarly communication, the well-wrought electronic monograph. Some variety of electronic book seems certain to proliferate in the near future, but it will be done well only if an organization like the AHA takes the lead in developing it, setting standards, and legitimizing the whole endeavor in the eyes of a skeptical profession.

Robert Darnton
President-Elect, American Historical Association

Budget: Expenses of the American Historical Association, Year 1

Fellowships
6 at $20,000 each

$120,000

Honoraria for Panelists
6 at $1,000 each

6,000

AHA, Direct Expenses
For Panel

2 conference calls

2,000

1 meeting

5,000

Communication with specialist readers: telephone and postage for 100 books

1,000

For Staff

One-third time for one staff member

10,600

One-tenth time for program officer

4,000

Postage

2,000

Duplication

1,000

Telephone

600

Total

26,200

Overhead, 10%

2,620

Total Annual Expenses of AHA

28,820

 

Fellowships

120,000

Honoraria for Panelists

6,000

Total Annual Expenses of AHA

28,820

Expenses of Columbia University Press

102,500

Expenses, Year 1

$257,320

 

Interest on sums deposited for years 2 and 3
Year 2, expenses

$265,444

Year 3, expenses

249,724

Total

515,168

5% of Total

$25,758

 

Expenses, Year 1

$257,320

Income from interest

– 25,758

Total Expenses for Year 1

$231,562

 

Year 2
Fellowships

$120,000

Honoraria for Panelists

6,000

AHA, Direct Expenses (same as in Year 1)

28,820

Expenses of Columbia University Press

110,624

Expenses, Year 2

$265,444

 

Interest on sum deposited for year 3
Year 3, total expenses

$249,724

5%

12,486

 

Expenses, Year 2

$265,444

Income from interest

– 12,486

Total Expenses for Year 2

$252,958

 

Year 3
Fellowships

$120,000

Honoraria for Panelists

6,000

AHA, Direct Expenses (same as in year 1)

28,820

Expenses of Columbia University Press

94,904

Total Expenses for Year 3 (no interest subtracted)

$249,724

 

Total Expenses for the Three Years
Year 1

$231,562

Year 2

252,958

Year 3

249,724

Total

$734,24