Published Date

December 31, 2003

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.


As we finally close the 1998 grant for the Gutenberg-e program, it is useful to assess both how far we have come, and offer a preliminary assessment of where we expect to be when Mellon’s support for the project comes to an end sometime within the next two years. Since the project remains ongoing, as we carry on the project through a second three-year grant, our report is necessarily provisional. Nevertheless, tracing the development of the program from its inception provides some useful markers both for the state of the project today and for the potential of online scholarly publishing.

This report will discuss the accomplishments and the challenges of the first phases of the program and highlight the process of developing the most successful electronic publishing project possible. The 1998 grant, initially anticipated to be completed in 2001, was extended to December 2003, so this report will trace the first three competitions and the experiences of those authors up to 2003.

Revising Our Goals and Expectations

It is useful to recall the original goals and plans for the project. The project was initiated with three specific, interrelated goals in mind—to legitimate electronic publishing, to rescue the endangered monograph, and to aid in a perceived crisis in scholarly publishing, which seemed to make it more difficult for young scholars to publish their first books. As the then AHA President Robert Darnton described it, “Studies by the AHA and professional organizations such as the Research Library Group have demonstrated that it is almost impossible for beginning historians to get their dissertations published if they work in fields such as African history, colonial Latin America, or even early modern Europe. Moreover, the technology is evolving so rapidly that publishing of all sorts is shifting massively to the Internet. By creating a program to publish top dissertations on the Web, the AHA intends to set standards for electronic publishing in general.”

At the outset, these three purposes seemed closely aligned. If publishing houses were producing fewer scholarly monographs, and the monograph remained the gold standard for tenure, then it stood to reason that younger historians would need other outlets for their work, and feel a real attraction to the Gutenberg-e project. And younger scholars, who had grown up in a world of personal computers, would presumably bring a greater facility and creativity to the task of creating innovative and interesting publications for the medium. We have come to discover that there was a tension between those goals and expectations. At least in the field of history, it turns out that the monograph is not quite as endangered as we had feared. While the health of university presses and monograph publishing remains quite troubled, it appears history is more successful than most fields in getting books published. This was borne out in our surveys of recent history PhDs, who reported fairly little concern about getting their dissertation published in print. In response to these findings, we began to deemphasize the endangered monograph as a goal of the program for the third competition, and the press formalized an arrangement with the authors that allows print publication of the books after three years.

At the same time, the desire to legitimate electronic publishing grew out of the notion that the Internet was not yet viewed as a viable medium for history scholarship. This, unfortunately, proved to be the most durable of our expectations. While projects like the ACLS History E-Book project and the History Cooperative have provided valuable advice and encouragement, we continue to encounter significant levels of skepticism and doubt about electronic publishing among senior and junior members of the profession. Fortunately, most of our authors report that the Gutenberg-e award was a net plus in their departments, but while we have seen improvements at the individual level, the doubts of those with less exposure to these projects continue to challenge the success of electronic publishing projects in the discipline.

Revising Our Procedures

In light of these shifts in our expectations, we had to continually revise and modify the basic procedures of the program. The project started as a three-year program in which the AHA would organize nation-wide competitions to select six top-quality dissertations (or first manuscripts) in fields or sub-disciplines in which presses seemed reluctant to publish. Each prize consisted of a $20,000 fellowship to be used for the perfection of the book and of the publication itself, which would be edited, designed, and prepared by Columbia University Press, transmitted through the World Wide Web, and accessed primarily through site licenses in research libraries.

The substantial prize amount and our understanding of the problems in getting first monographs published led us to fear that we would be swamped by submissions, and added in a number of limits to help keep the submission flow manageable: only accepting dissertations nominated by the department, and limiting each department to three submissions. As it turned out, our problems were of a very different order, as we received only 25 applications for the first and 16 for the second competition.

Given our assumptions about the nature of the crisis in scholarly publishing, we felt confident that the virtues of the program would be obvious to younger scholars. So our initial publicity efforts were addressed primarily to advisors and the public at large. In the early phases, Robert Darnton raised awareness of the project by writing two columns in Perspectives, the AHA newsletter. He then recast them for what turned into the cover story of an issue of The New York Review of Books. That issue was taken up in Britain, Germany, Italy, and especially France, where it became part of a large-scale debate about scholarly publishing on the Internet. Finally, Darnton published another piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education and an op-ed essay in The New York Times. Both the Chronicle and The Times followed up with news stories, as did some other journals. Given the broad level of coverage and attention to the project, we were more than a bit surprised at the limited number of submissions in the first two years.

To assess the reason for the apparent lack of interest in the Gutenberg-e competition, in the fall of 2002 we sent a brief questionnaire to historians who received their PhDs between 1999 and 2002, in all fields of history. Apart from asking them about their field of study, the questions sought to find out whether the scholars had heard of the Gutenberg-e Prizes; if they had, why they had not applied; and finally, if they would apply if there were a competition in their field. Despite all the publicity, a significant number of the respondents reported that they had not heard about the competition. Quite a few indicated they had skipped over an ad because it referred to something electronic, and others reported that they were just too busy looking for work or coping with the pressure of starting new jobs to apply. In addition, younger scholars, fresh from the PhD and particularly dependent on their advisors for a solid start to their careers, were often swayed by the doubts and concerns of the very senior scholars the project was intended to win over. When we asked new PhDs why they had chosen not to apply for the prize, they often cited the blandishments of their advisors. And even among those who had received the prize, the continued discouragements of some advisors seemed to support a certain amount of foot dragging.

Nevertheless, a significant number of the eligible scholars surveyed (almost 10 percent) indicated that they might have entered their dissertations if they known about it. In light of that, we developed a more rigorous set of contacts with PhDs in the field(s) of subsequent competitions—identifying the pool of potential applicants early in the process, developing mailings (both print and electronic) targeted to their specific field, and sending them all the information needed to compete if they chose to do so. This dramatically improved the number of submissions in the first year we attempted it, in 2003, which received almost twice the number of submissions as the two previous years (42).

Revising Our Understanding of Publishing Requirements

Beyond the problems involved in getting young historians to submit their dissertations, we soon discovered we had been over-optimistic about the authorial process, as well. It became clear that our goal of providing an alternative publishing outlet for younger scholars was more problematic than originally imagined, and in most cases, the publication of the books took significantly longer than anticipated. Initially we had imagined that Columbia University Press could publish each year’s winners as a group, within one year of selection. This quickly proved to be unrealistic. The first books in the project were published a full two years after the prizes were awarded (see attached list).

Through authors’ workshops and occasional interviews with the authors, we have been able to observe the authors’ progress, and help them along in the creative process. In the course of these meetings, we have identified two significant impediments in the development of the dissertations into e-books—the difficulties involved in making the transition from being doctoral students to (in many cases) becoming junior members of a history department, and the difficulties of discerning what to do in the electronic medium. It is in the nature of the life cycle of the new history PhD that younger scholars have many other commitments at the start of their careers. As we worked with the authors, we soon discovered just how busy most junior faculty are in today’s academy, with heavy teaching loads, large class sizes, and extensive committee work, all competing with their efforts to complete the first book for tenure.

Beyond the practical problems in their lives, it quickly became evident that online publishing added a layer of work and responsibility that became a further impediment to the swift completion of their books. Our expectations that younger historians would naturally be more open to doing something creative with the medium proved to be only partially correct. While most entered the project with an interest in making some substantive use of the medium, we soon discerned important differences in their levels of interest and approaches to the medium. A few of the new authors came with backgrounds in technology or other new media projects, and used that to hit the ground running. However, most of the authors entered with fairly little background beyond basic word processing. These authors generally fit into one of three types:

  • authors whose interest in the medium was limited, allowing for the inclusion of a few archival sources or illustrative images but primarily just providing a vehicle for communicating their texts,
  • authors who were interested in the medium but had a hard time discerning what they could do with it, and
  • authors who saw important possibilities in the medium and shaped their projects accordingly.

The authors with background skills in the technology and the authors interested primarily in just publishing the text of their dissertation online moved swiftly through to completion. However, authors who wanted to do something more with medium, but lacked background in the medium, took longer (sometimes significantly longer) than their peers.

While we had expected the authors would use the large $20,000 fellowship to assist in buying release time to work on the project, in the end this proved to be only a modest part of their actual use. Fifteen of the authors have provided detailed accountings of how they used their funds. Ten used some portion (often a small portion) to buy some time off or replace salary lost by taking leave. A larger portion of the fellowships were used for expenses related to their research and the more technical needs of the electronic publication. Examples of most common use of money include: Travel/Research trips (12), new computers (9), Rights/Permissions for images (9), digital cameras (7), and scanners (7). While we are pleased that they’ve taken the needs of the project so seriously, it is worth noting that the medium again drew off attention and resources in unexpected ways.

To compensate for the additional layer of work involved in publishing electronically, (and thanks to the Mellon Foundation’s generous support) the AHA and Columbia University Press have held biennial workshops for the authors. One of the real advantages of the project—and one of the aspects most cited by completed authors as setting the project well above most publishing projects—is the significant amount of handholding by the press. The workshops allowed the authors to come together with the editors, programmers, and designers at Columbia, as well as the authors from other prize cohorts, to find solutions for common problems and ease the way to published books. In addition to hosting the workshops, our partners at EPIC have also provided a much wider range of creative efforts and services by developing detailed author guides, designing a flexible design framework that could serve the purposes of a range of different types of publications, and working through a host of distribution issues.

Legitimizing Electronic Publications

One of the other early realizations in the program was that if the e-books were to succeed as scholarship, it would be necessary to develop modes of criticism and review that would legitimate and authenticate the new publications. To assist with this, we invited Michael Grossberg, editor of The American Historical Review, to attend the second authors’ workshop. He observed that many, if not most, history journals lacked a procedure for reviewing electronic publications. He challenged us to think about how these might be distributed to reviewers, and returned to his staff and board of editors and asked how online books might be assessed and included in the reviews section of the journal.

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. First, the AHR will not segregate e-books into 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. However, it will put the scholarship first and do everything possible to integrate e-books into the ongoing debates about history in general. As a leader in both the Conference of Historical Journals and the History Cooperative, Dr. Grossberg has been exceptionally helpful in promulgating this more widely to the field.

Our partners at the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia have also been working directly with the library community to address how to make these books more visible in their channels of distribution. In a focus group with librarians held in December 2002, we found a good deal of enthusiasm for projects like Gutenberg-e and received some good advice on obtaining proper MARC catalog records and improved design. They also expressed some concern about the limited number of titles in the project, which has served as an added fillip to get more publications online as quickly as possible.

As the number of publications included on the Gutenberg-e website grows, the process of publicizing the project has contributed to the legitimization of electronic publishing overall. Both the AHA and Columbia University Press have dedicated significant energy to “lifting the curtain” on the project. Through conference presentations and interviews with trade publications and journals, Kate Wittenberg of EPIC has spread the word about the project to the wider academic and publishing communities. Meanwhile, the AHA staff published a number of articles about the authors’ workshops and ancillary issues on electronic and scholarly publishing inspired by their work on the project in the AHA’s newsmagazine, Perspectives. These reveal the processes for creating the dynamic texts that the electronic medium makes possible.


The early stages of the Gutenberg-e have been instructive in bringing the goals and expectations in line with the processes of the competition and for the publication of the books. We now feel we have a clearer understanding of the realities of publishing in an electronic environment, and hope to turn this into a long-term success for the program. We are currently in the final year of competition for the second grant, and are now working with our partners at Columbia to sustain the project beyond the final round of funding.