Published Date

January 12, 2000

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.


January 12, 2000

Mr. Donald J. Waters
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
140 E. 62nd St.
New York, NY 10021

Dear Don,

I am addressing this report to you as the successor to Richard Ekman, although of course it is intended for anyone in the Mellon Foundation who wants to be brought up to date on the Gutenberg-e grant given to the American Historical Association.  I can offer a narrative account of our activities in 1999.  Randy Norell, the Controller in the AHA’s business office will send you a financial report.

As you may know, we started the year at high speed.  Announcements went out about Gutenberg-e at the annual meeting of the AHA in Washington, D.C. in January, followed up by several articles and notices in Perspectives, our newsletter.  I wrote two columns about it in Perspectives, 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, I 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.  So the publicity could hardly have been better.

But just as we were beginning to congratulate ourselves, we ran into a problem.  By the deadline for the submission of dissertations for the six prizes, July 1, we had received only five Ph.D. theses.  I don’t have an adequate explanation for this poor response, although I can point to several factors: the word may not have reached the department chairs, who were responsible for making the nominations; if it did reach them, the chairs may have buried it in the remotest corners of their “in” boxes (they are busy people and have other concerns); and the first round of the competition was restricted to fields that are marginal in many places (colonial Latin America, Africa, and South Asia).  Whatever the cause, we worried about a disaster and took steps to avoid it.  We extended the deadline to October 1; we allowed individuals to submit, provided they had supporting letters from their dissertation directors; we began a new campaign to contact departments; and several of us placed phone calls to scholars known to direct dissertations in the three fields.  In the end, we received 25 submissions, many of them so strong that the panel of judges had difficulty in reaching a verdict.

We were fortunate to have persuaded three top scholars to act as judges: Stuart Schwartz from Yale, Thomas Metcalf from Berkeley, and Sara Berry from Johns Hopkins.  They read hard, conferred, and finally reached a verdict.  You have a synopsis of each of the dissertations in the enclosed report by the judges.  It can function as a preliminary reader’s report for the Columbia University Press, which will publish all of the transformed dissertations as electronic books, hopefully by December 31.  All six winners made it to the AHA’s annual meeting in Chicago last week (one arrived late but safe and sound after her train was derailed in Montana.)  We made a good deal of fuss over them and over Gutenberg-e in general, notably in a well-attended plenary session on scholarly publishing in the 21st century.

Now we face a crucial problem: how to turn dissertations into books, not just ordinary monographs but a new kind of book never before attempted by a scholar in the humanities.  There are technical as well as editorial difficulties to be surmounted; and as we could see in the faces of the prize winners–joy mixed with anxiety–the enterprise puts enormous pressure on the authors.  We told them that we wanted to receive completed texts for genuine e-books by the end of the year.  They began to ask questions about what an e-book was and how an inexperienced author was supposed to prepare one.  In the course of these exchanges and of a meeting with Kate Wittenberg of Columbia and the AHA staff, it became clear that the ideal way to proceed would be to hold a workshop at Columbia in which Columbia’s editors and technical experts would brief the six Gutenberg-e fellows and answer their questions.  Because Gutenberg-e is functioning in many respects as a pilot project for the ACLS’s HistorE program, also funded by Mellon, we will invite the two directors of that program, Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto, and probably some of the more senior authors who are preparing e-books under its auspices.  Pillarisetti Sudhir and Robert Townsend of the AHA staff will make sure that the seminar gets full coverage in Perspectives, so information about the problems of actually executing an e-book will be disseminated throughout the profession.

That is the state of play at present: talented authors facing a daunting deadline and the challenge of developing a new kind of scholarly book.

Kate Wittenberg can provide details about the operations at the Columbia University Press.  As I understand it, Gutenberg-e belongs to a major effort by Columbia to take the lead in electronic scholarly publishing.  They have hired new staff, bought new equipment, and thought through many of the editorial as well as technical problems.  More problems are sure to arise: I speak from some experience, because my presidential address at the AHA meeting is already being prepared for publication as the lead article in the new electronic version of the American Historical Review.  The actual execution of such a project requires enormous labor and expertise.  But everything I know about Columbia’s preparations and its experience leads me to believe that we did the right thing in giving this assignment to Kate Wittenberg at Columbia.

The AHA side of things is quite straightforward. Pillarisetti Sudhir is the staff member in charge of Gutenberg-e.  It is a strenuous job, at least at peak times, because it involves processing submissions, preparing for next year’s competition, directing publicity, handling relations with the authors, and coordinating activities with the Columbia University Press.  But Sudhir is a skilled editor and a fine, all-round scholar who never fails to stay on top of things and goes by the soundest of editorial rules: “God (or in some versions, the devil) is in the details.”  Robert Townsend, Sudhir’s boss as department head for publications and membership, also collaborates and oversees the general operation.  I can assure you that the administration of Gutenberg-e by the AHA staff has been flawless.

Finally, with the approval of the AHA’s Council, I appointed an advisory committee to take official responsibility for the functioning of the program—and also to take action should some unusual need arise.  I serve on the committee myself, to ensure continuity as the AHA presidency passes into other hands.  The other two members are Stanley Katz from Princeton and Gale Stokes from Rice, both veterans of publishing and e-projects.  The committee will nominate a new panel of judges for next year’s competition.  So everything seems to be in line if not yet online.  By this time next year, I hope to report that some of the e-books are actually being published.  You will then be able to inspect them yourself.  I hope you will conclude that the Mellon’s money was wisely invested.  At the moment, I can only assure you: so far, so good.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Darnton
Past President, American Historical Association