Published Date

January 1, 2002

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.


I write to request a renewal of the Gutenberg-e grant for another three years. The second grant would cover the period 2002–2004. If awarded, it would extend the Gutenberg-e program over six years, providing enough electronically published material to set standards and to assess problems in the creation of a new form of scholarly communication.

From the beginning, Gutenberg-e was conceived of as an experiment. It was designed as a way to try out new models of electronic books and to test the response of the academic community to them. It also was meant as a testing ground for efforts to cope with three interlocking problems: those in library budgets (the skyrocketing cost of serials and the drop in the acquisitions of monographs), in university presses (the collapse in the demand for monographs, especially in “endangered” fields) and in academic careers (the need for young scholars to qualify for tenure by publishing monographs.) We did not expect Gutenberg-e to provide a magic solution to those problems, which are embedded deep in the structure of academic life; but we hoped that it would help—at least at the level of diagnosis.

My somewhat utopian enthusiasm for Gutenberg-e has now been tempered by three years of experience with the realities of electronic publishing. I doubt that the program will transform any institutional structures, but I think it has succeeded in its primary goal of promoting scholarly publishing on the Internet. At the same time, it has forced us to confront some unanticipated issues such as the need to develop a policy for reviewing electronic books and the need for workshops where authors could work through problems with editors, book designers, information technicians, and one another.

In asking for a renewal of the program, therefore, I propose to maintain its essential features but to modify it in two respects. First, I would narrow its aim. Although it will have implications for the future of research libraries and university presses, it should concentrate on developing electronic monographs of the highest quality. Second, I would enlarge its scope.  Instead of restricting it to fields where the monograph is most endangered, we should extend it to some of the most popular fields.

Having looked back over the past three years, I can report on the progress we have made and point out some unexpected problems and possibilities we encountered along the way.

The first e-books. As experiments go, Gutenberg-e has produced relatively few surprises, but it has taken longer than expected to publish the final e-books. I spent most of 1998 preparing the program.  The first competition for the prize dissertations was launched at the beginning of 1999. The first six winners were announced at the AHA meeting of January 2000.  The competition for that year led to the creation of a second “class” of six winners announced at the AHA meeting of January 2001. And the third competition is currently taking place.   It now seems that most of the first-year class will complete their e-books by June, but the Columbia University Press, which will publish all six of them as a package to be sold to libraries through on-site licenses, plans to postpone the publication date until January.  In that way, we will have a superb set of e-books to announce along with the names of the third class of prize winners at the next meeting of the AHA.

The delay in the production schedule means that I cannot point to final products as evidence of a Gutenberg-e list now available for inspection. But I have spent so much time with the authors and their texts, that I can vouch for their excellence. In fact, it is the sheer quality of the work that I would stress as the principal rationale for continuing the program. The dissertations were excellent in the first place, and the jury did a fine job in selecting them.  But they have improved enormously while undergoing the transformation into e-books.

Some, such as Ignacio Gallup-Diaz’s monograph on “Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in the Darién, 1640-1750,” continue to be relatively straightforward accounts of their subjects. They use the electronic medium primarily to enlarge their documentary base, working through hyperlinks to transcribed correspondence and digitized reproductions of manuscripts and maps. Others, such as Heidi Gengenbach’s “Gendered Accounts of Community and Change in Magude District, Mozambique, c. 1800 to the Present,” use a vast register of electronically recorded sounds and images to produce a book far beyond the range of the conventional codex.  The different qualities in the first group of monographs, which stood out clearly in the presentations at the workshops organized by the Columbia University Press, made us conclude that there is no such thing as a prototypical e-book. We now tend to distinguish broadly between the “additive” variety (those that deepen and enlarge a fairly conventional mode of exposition) and the “expressive” variety (those that incorporate the medium itself in developing an argument.) The latter are more spectacular, and they attracted the most attention in the AHA session devoted to the program last January. But they lend themselves best to an anthropological mode of historical research, the kind that has flourished in the fields favored by the first round of competition. We think that the electronic medium also has proven its importance for the less spectacular works, because it opens up new possibilities of exploring the interplay of argument and evidence. E-books of this sort should not be dismissed as conventional works with an expanded set of footnotes and appendices.

Organization and administration.  The administration of the program has taken place as planned. It owes its success in large part to the talented staff at AHA headquarters in Washington—above all to Pillarisetti Sudhir, who managed it on a day-to-day basis, and to Robert Townsend, the department head for publications and membership, who supervised general operations. Sharon Tune, the AHA’s convention director, saw to it that Gutenberg-e occupied a prominent place in the last three annual meetings of the AHA, and Randy Norell kept watch over the budget. As president-elect of the AHA, I spent much of 1998 consulting with leading figures in the world of research libraries and university presses. Several of them served on a committee, which met in Washington and issued a report that served as the basis for the final design of the program. After launching the competition in 1999, I appointed a panel of three distinguished historians to select the winners.  In making their selections, they wrote a report recommending that the program be continued as it was designed. A report from the second panel of judges confirmed that view, so I do not propose to modify the way we have organized the competition.

A special committee of the AHA—Stanley Katz (Princeton), Gale Stokes (Rice) and myself as chairman—took responsibility for overseeing the program. In practice, that meant little more than conferring about nominations for the panel of judges and agreeing on the fields to be selected for each competition. But there was a potential danger that Gutenberg-e would be seen as my own pet project and that I would run it pretty much on my own, perhaps leaving it to perish of neglect if I moved on to something else. The Council of the AHA therefore decided–and I heartily agreed–to fold Gutenberg-e into the normal operations of its Research Division. A special committee of the division has been named to supervise it for the next three years, assuming that its life should be extended by a renewal of the grant. I will serve on the committee, but I will be phased out as the Research Division acquires more experience and expertise.

Workshops. Our original plan did not include any provision for helping the prize winners redo their dissertations as e-books. We assumed they would do the job on their own, while consulting from time to time with the experts at Columbia University Press. In fact, we discovered that, despite their delight at winning the prize, they were confused and sometimes terrified at the prospect of creating a new kind of book. After assessing the situation, Kate Wittenberg, who is in charge of the program at Columbia (her title is now Director of Electronic Publishing Initiative @ Columbia), decided that the six winners should discuss their common problems with the Columbia staff: editors, book designers, computer experts, subsidiary rights experts, and assorted information technologists. Mellon provided the funding. The first meeting was a huge success.  Considered as a seminar in which the prize winners summarized their research, I would rate it as one of the finest intellectual feasts of my life. But it also was a workshop in which real work got done, primarily in the form of consultations between the individual authors and the Columbia staffers. Since then, two more workshops have taken place. The last one, held on March 11–12, included the new prize winners along with the “old”, who shared their experiences and took on the role of informal mentors. Kate Wittenberg also invited several outsiders, including the directors of the ACLS History E-Book Project.  Originally conceived of as a small consulting service for the prize winners, the workshops now are developing into the nucleus of  a system for spreading information and expertise throughout the scholarly community.

Reviewing. Another aspect of the program that we had not considered at the outset concerns the reception of the e-books.  We assumed that Columbia would market and publicize them in the usual manner, but we had not asked ourselves what a review of an e-book should entail. Michael Grossberg, editor of the American Historical Review, attended the workshops and assessed the entire program from his perspective.  What exactly would a reviewer review? he asked. How should journal editors choose the reviewers of e-books, according to their expertise in the subject area of the book or their command of electronic projects?  What sort of protocol for reviewing should they follow?  What would be communicated to them, and what reward could entice them to take on such a job in the first place? None of these questions had occurred to us—or, it turned out, to any other journal editors anywhere in the world. Grossberg went over the issues at the annual Conference of Historical Journals held during the last AHA meeting, and he also discussed them at a meeting of the AHR’s Board of Editors.  The result of all this consultation and reflection is a set of guidelines for reviewing e-books that was approved by the Council of the AHA and that promises to serve as a model for reviewing practices throughout much of the scholarly world.  Without going into detail, I would stress two points. First, the AHR will not segregate e-books in a separate category of scholarly publications. Instead, it will review them along with other books in the same field and will seek out reviewers who are experts in that field. Second, it will ask the reviewers to take the special qualities of the electronic medium into account, and it will run special review articles about the emergence of this new means of communication. But it will put the scholarship first and do everything possible to integrate e-books into the ongoing debates about history in general.

The Pool of Competitors. A third unanticipated problem was the number of competitors. We feared that the panel of judges would be overwhelmed by a flood of applicants. In fact, the number was disappointing: 26 in 1999 and 16 in 2000. The quality of the submissions was better than expected but their number was so small that we worried we had got something wrong. It could not have been publicity. The program was advertised widely, and it attracted extensive coverage in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Review of Books, and other publications. We spread the word through full-page notices and articles in our own widely read newsletter, Perspectives. When at first it seemed that the response would not be adequate in 1999, we modified the rules of the competition. Recent PhDs were invited to nominate themselves (with the endorsement of their thesis supervisor), and the deadline was extended. We also contacted key professors who supervised dissertations in the fields covered by the competition. In the end, we were pleased with the result, but we realized that we had stumbled upon a major problem: the profession did not react to the program with much enthusiasm.

Why?  In part, of course, because of cyber-skepticism among the older, more conservative members of the profession. We heard plenty of grumbling that e-books were gimmicks, not true books and not adequate for promotion to the ranks of the tenured. The department chair of one of our prize winners referred to her book, which I think is truly outstanding, as “your email thing.” Many department chairs and thesis directors worry that they will penalize their students if they encourage them to compete for a Gutenberg-e prize instead of attempting to publish their dissertations in the normal way. Many appear not to know that the prize-winners retain the option of publishing their e-books as conventional codexes three years after the e-publication date.

We expected to encounter this kind of passive resistance. Indeed, one of the main purposes of the program is to legitimize e-publishing in the eyes of those who control the profession and dominate tenure decisions. I myself have done everything possible to argue the case in favor of electronic publication, both in articles and in sessions at the annual meetings of the AHA.  I could not have asked for a better hearing or a better response. Yet something is amiss.

Part of the problem concerns the fields selected for the competitions. We have tabulated data on dissertations completed in all fields of historical research. According to the last figures, for 1996, more than one-third of all dissertations (280 of 767) are in twentieth-century United States history—a worrying sign of present-mindedness in a profession devoted to the study of the past. The fields we selected for the first competition are very small. Dissertations in Asian history (we excluded China and Japan, the most important segment of it), African history, and Latin American History (we excluded everything after 1800, again the most important segment) came to only 13 percent (106) of the total.  Those in European history before 1800 are even scarcer: only 96 of the total. We estimate our response rate—that is the number of competitors relative to the number of recent Ph.D.s in the field–at about 5 percent of the pool of potential applicants. Comparison with the other fellowship programs of the AHA suggests that the response rate is about the same as that in the other competitions. We therefore have a hypothesis: the disappointing number of applicants derives from the size of the fields targeted by the competition.  Cyber-skepticism and conservatism among the old guard may be less important than we had anticipated.

In order to test this hypothesis, I propose that—should the program be renewed by the Mellon Foundation—we open the next competition to one of the most popular fields: American history up to 1900, which accounted for 17 percent (131) of the Ph.D.s produced in 1996. In the following year, we might invite applicants from European history before 1900. And for the third year, we might revert to the fields in the first competition, the one that took place five years earlier, in 1999: South Asian history, colonial Latin America, and Africa. This policy would mean some deviation from the principle of concentrating on the problem of the “endangered monograph.” But it would help us assess the extent of the danger by providing test cases from fields where it still is relatively easy to publish monographs.

Other unanticipated problems.

  1. The technological temptation. Unlike normal printed matter, e-books can in principle evolve indefinitely. Authors, readers, and future collaborators can add material endlessly to their websites; and the open-ended character of the texts can make it difficult for the author to draw a line and say, “Finished!” It is important, however, for authors to finish. They should get on with other things.  Young authors, in particular, can be tempted by the possibilities of adding ever more links in search of endlessly greater completeness. This attitude may be part of the problem in getting the first prize winners to adhere to a deadline.  We intend to combat it with some tough talk about fixing a schedule and adhering to it. But we should pay special attention to this problem and the threat it poses to the timing of the entire enterprise.
  2. Released time. Several prize winners have now joined small colleges, which have heavy teaching loads and little concern for making time available to assistant professors to do more research. We had thought that the $20,000 prize would often be used to purchase released time or an entire semester so that the prize winners could expand their research and concentrate on uninterrupted stints of writing. Some of them say this is impossible. I suspect that a strong letter from the president of the Mellon Foundation to the presidents of the prize winners’ colleges could help remove some of these obstacles. A copy to the administrator in charge of information technology would also be helpful. I have already produced a standard letter to the chairs of each prize winner’s department, and it has helped ease their way through the first years of an assistant professorship. Several such chairs have responded positively and two attended the award ceremony at the last annual meeting of the AHA. The guardians of the flame of the conventional codex may be more open to persuasion than we expected.  But we should remain ready to confront prejudices against “your email thing.”
  3. Rights.  Several prize winners have run into difficulties with purchasing and clearing rights to use visual material, recordings, and documents.  In extreme cases, such as Heidi Gengenbach’s research in Mozambique and Michael Katten’s work in India, the native informants cannot even understand attempts to explain the notion of intellectual property and the need for them to give permission for the publication of the video tapes in which they appear.  In other cases, including Jacqueline Holler’s work on nuns in sixteenth-century Mexico City, the keepers of the archives hesitate to give rights for publication on the Web as opposed to that in a normal book.  We hope to mitigate these problems by explaining the restricted character of site licensing, but we probably cannot find a way around a further problem: the enormous prices charged by museums and some libraries for the right to reproduce visual materials (often $500 for one image.) This problem plagues several prize winners in our second “class”—Gregory Brown, who needs to reproduce scenes from the Comédie française; Sarah Lowengard, who has studied the use and notion of color in eighteenth-century England and France; and Wayne Hanley, who has investigated the vast iconography behind the early propaganda that helped propel Napoleon Bonaparte to power. The Columbia University Press is doing all it can to help. I also recommend that some money be set aside as a pool of funds for each class to be drawn on as needed for defraying the cost of reproduction rights–perhaps $5,000 a year.
  4. Reader Reports. The panels of judges submit quite cogent reports on the dissertation of each prize winner. But the winners say they would like something more–the equivalent of a detailed reader’s report normally submitted to university presses. They think that this service, which they would expect in the normal course of publication, could help them improve their books. I am somewhat skeptical about this request, since I think Columbia’s editors can provide all the guidance that is needed. But I agree that thorough reader reports can be helpful and also can provide strategic material for tenure decisions. I therefore think it would be wise to direct Columbia to send each dissertation out to one expert reader, who would be paid an honorarium of perhaps $200 for his or her trouble. This service would add another $1200 to the budget.

An unexpected non-problem. The design for Gutenberg-e reserves one of the six prizes for a dissertation by a recent Ph.D. who is not employed full time in an institution of higher learning. The purpose of this provision is to help the growing proportion of the profession who have been marginalized or excluded from conventional careers as a consequence of the job crisis. I worried, however, that the number and quality of applications from “independent” historians would be disappointing. In fact, it has been excellent, especially in the second round of competition. The “independent” from the first round, Michael Katten, came up with an extraordinarily interesting e-book, which among other things traces a key tale among Telugu-speaking Indians all the way back to ancient palm leaf manuscripts through a pop film from the 1950s to contemporary street singers. The book reassesses the notions of caste and identity as factors in Indian history and challenges the dominant “subalternist” school of Indian history.  The National Coalition of Independent Historians, which has helped spread the word about Gutenberg-e, wrote me a strong letter of appreciation for the program.

Budget. The Mellon Foundation provided a generous grant, which covered all of our costs. We spent less than anticipated on travel and honoraria for the panels of judges, partly because they did their work by email and partly because I originally planned for a panel of six rather than three. I would propose adding the two items mentioned above: $5,000 a year for purchasing rights to reproduce materials and $1200 to cover reader reports. In order to do more to publicize the prize competition and to win sympathy for it among department chairs, we have produced a new brochure and plan to run more advertisements. I do not yet know whether that will require an expanded line in the budget, because it might be covered by savings on items such as the costs of reproducing and mailing the dissertations to the panel of judges. It seems sensible to incorporate the cost of the Columbia workshops in the overall budget for the program, although it would be best to leave the running of the workshops to Kate Wittenberg and her staff. As to the time invested by the staff of the AHA, it is significant but manageable.  Pillarisetti Sudhir has put in many long hours overseeing activities, especially at certain times of the year, and he does a superb job without complaining of an overload. The load on Robert Townsend and Arnita Jones, the Executive Director of the AHA, also seems to be bearable. I myself devoted a great deal of 1998 and 1999 to the program and began to breathe more easily after 2000.  Frankly, I think the program will not work well unless one person assumes primary responsibility for it, and I would urge the Research Division of the AHA to make allowances for that necessity.

Conclusion. The Gutenberg-e program has not yet provided full proof of its worthiness to be continued for another three years, because its first e-books will not be published until the end of this year. Nonetheless, they are so far advanced that I can promise with confidence that they will be outstanding. Their success should inject more stimulus into the program. But the program is already moving ahead at a brisk pace, and it has promoted activities in other sectors, such as book reviewing, in unexpected ways. The experiment hasn’t worked, but it is working.  I ask that it be renewed.

Robert Darnton
Past President, AHA