Published Date

January 28, 1932

From Historical Scholarship in America: Needs and Opportunities (1932)


I. Present Trends and Neglected Areas in Research

Historical study in America in recent years has been strongly influenced by the interests of workers in other fields, notably in economics, political science and sociology. These influences have perhaps been felt less through the transfer of techniques than in suggestions of points of view and in the broadening of the content of history. The results are rather clearly reflected in recent lists of theses under way in the graduate schools. While inspection of these titles indicates that a good deal of work is going forward along familiar lines and that there is even some threshing over of old straw, the newer interests of American historians are surprisingly well represented.

Less stimulus has come from the side of the humanities to turn American historians toward investigations in the history of ideas and of culture. To be sure, the vogue of social history is inevitably leading historians in that direction. It is true also that the special students of literature, journalism, the arts, philosophy, etc., have themselves devoted considerable attention to the historical phases of their subjects. In recent research in American literature, for instance, the “balance of trade” with history seems to run strongly in the opposite direction. The Turner hypothesis has produced its crop of studies in literary history; and the literary historians have been under heavy attack in their own camp for interesting themselves unduly in the social setting and social values of literary production.

Whether justified or not in such case, this criticism does not apply to the professional historian who may approach the literature-or the art, music, etc.-of a given period as social phenomena. Moreover, in some respects the historian is better qualified to investigate many of these problems than are the specialists to whom they have been too exclusively relegated. They belong in any large synthesis of social-cultural history; and historians may profitably engage in some part of the basic research. Illustrations at random of appropriate themes are: cultural contributions of immigrant groups (and more broadly the whole theme of the transit of civilization from Europe to America and throughout the United States) ; the history of such popular educational agencies as the lyceum and the lecture platform; the rise and decline of oratory in America, etc.

Even in the more technical fields of the history of the theater, of music, art, architecture, religion, education, business and the professions, the historically trained investigator has tasks to perform which he now largely neglects and which are not likely to be done quite so satisfactorily to his purpose by the special student. A similar argument might be constructed for distinctively historical investigation of the development of mechanics and invention, of the technology of transportation, and the like.

Closer to the recognized center of historical study, because basic to effective control of an important body of materials for modern history, are investigations in the history of journalism. A number of additional histories of individual newspapers are greatly needed to supply information as to ownership, editorial control, policies, etc., and thus facilitate the critical problems of exploiting newspaper material. Naturally such studies would also contribute to the analysis of public opinion, in various periods, whether one argues that newspapers reflect or only seek to direct public opinion. Among other neglected areas in American history may be listed administrative history, agricultural history, comparative local history and the history of the South.

From the foregoing fragmentary suggestions it is apparent that the conference believes some sort of planning of research activities is both possible and desirable. We do not advocate the setting up of any supreme historical council to elaborate a great unified plan. Two methods, which may usefully supplement each other, are here suggested. One is the further development of practices already followed on occasion by the American Historical Association. To this end we recommend that more frequently there be arranged facilities at the annual meetings for small group conferences for the genuine exchange of ideas among students of similar interests. These might in some instances develop a very simple continuing organization, perhaps with secretaries, for the exchange of bibliographical data, etc. The experience of the American Political Science Association and of the Modern Language Association is suggestive in this respect. The other proposal is for the development of regional surveys in large areas, not necessarily mutually exclusive, of work already done and especially of gaps which need to be filled.

The conference does not favor a comprehensive listing of research projects on the scale of the annual thesis lists. It does, however, recommend that the editors of’ journals find place in their news sections for much briefer lists or notes on work in progress, and that individuals furnish such information, including news of investigations in cognate fields where possible. Only projects fairly well advanced should be given notice.

II. Enlargement, Improvement and Preservation of Materials

The need of filling in such gaps in historical research as have just been noted has already been recognized by many of the agencies concerned with the collection of source materials. What there is yet left to be done, however, can only be revealed by comprehensive surveys of the collections already built up. In the matter of manuscripts, for example, hundreds of depositories are in existence in the United States, but adequate inventories of their contents are not available.

The need for greater specialization of collecting exists, particularly in large metropolitan centers where there are numerous collecting agencies and where unnecessary competition makes itself felt. It would seem that in some cases the elimination of such competition by mutual agreement would clear the way for more intensive exploitation of given fields.

Historians may well take cognizance of the lively public interest that museum development has occasioned. Frequently the presentation of museum objects to a collecting agency leads to the discovery and preservation of manuscript and printed historical records. Museums have a distinct research value, particularly in the field of social history. An example of a type of study for which they may supply laboratory material is the household technology of a given area and period. One specialized Mid-Western museum of the outdoor type-the Norwegian-American Museum at Decorah, Iowa-affords valuable material for a study of the pioneer conditions of one immigrant element. In certain cities large specialized collections are being developed that will be of inestimable value to scholars engaged in research in American industrial history.

In the abstract, it seems desirable to work out a national plan for library development, with a view to the building up of great collections of research material along special lines at certain natural centers. Because of the vitality of particularistic interests, however, the feasibility of such planning seems open to question save in instances where unique collections have already been created.

The program announced by the Clarence Walworth Alvord Memorial Commission in the field of Mississippi Valley history is a step in the direction of systematizing and coordinating the publication of source material. It would seem to be desirable to create for other regions in the country machinery similar to that of the Alvord Commission for promoting the publication of source materials that possess a common interest for several states. In this connection attention may be called also to possibilities in the field of Canadian-American cooperation. Such subjects as the fur trade, transportation and the westward movement of the wheat belt illustrate a merging of historical interests that might profitably be exploited cooperatively. The publication of source materials has been attempted scarcely at all in certain backward states and in all too haphazard a manner in many others. Standards of editing, furthermore, are lamentably uneven throughout the country. Broad and carefully planned programs of source publication after the manner of the Illinois Historical Collections seem to offer the best possibilities for improvement in this general field. It should be added that, with the development of film and other processes for the effective and inexpensive reproduction of documentary materials, calendars of state groups of papers will often suffice where formerly complete publication would have been judged advisable.

The publication of the territorial papers, now happily assured, is typical of a number of projects of national interest that should be forwarded. Attention should be called to the importance of collecting and publishing the complete works of such American presidents as Pierce, Grant, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson and Harding and of other outstanding political figures. In certain of these cases calendars would probably suffice. Aggressive efforts to collect from scattered sources the letters and other papers of important men should not be delayed until biographies are projected. Indeed, planned collecting of contemporary materials, even when necessarily under the seal of confidence, may be desirable. Another domain in which publication of source material is to be desired is that of land sales, land speculation and land policy.

The compilation of calendars and archival guides is more useful to scholars than the actual publication of sources when selection with resulting elimination becomes necessary. Some needs in these fields and in the closely related one of bibliography are:

  1. A revision and continuation of the Channing, Hart and Turner, Guide to the Study and Reading of American History.
  2. The completion and publication of the bibliography of American travel and description, now in course of preparation by Dr. Solon J. Buck and others.
  3. Bibliographies and inventories of newspaper files by states, such as the one for Minnesota now nearing completion. The preparation of a bibliography and inventory of the newspapers of foreign groups is a special desideratum. Such a work, in view of the present trend in the direction of the study of population elements, would be of high practical value. There is a present need also for an adequate union list of the principal newspaper files of the United States, and a project for such a list, before the American Library Association, is indorsed.
  4. Inventories of manuscript collections prepared from the point of view both of the collecting institutions and of distant research workers. As has already been noted, such inventories are almost completely lacking at the present time. The extent of the country and the large number of depositories in existence suggest the need not only of adequate inventories of material, but also of making such inventories available for general consultation. Facsimile copies of inventory cards might be made by some special process; and a central file of cards at such an institution as the Library of Congress might be feasible. The preparation of inventories of manuscript collections might lead in many localities to surveys of materials for research comparable to that recently published for New York.
  5. Additional archival guides.
  6. The reproduction of unique newspaper files by photostat or other means.

III. Development of Research Personnel

The recruitment of personnel is a problem of central importance to the historical profession. It may be questioned whether the teaching methods customarily employed in undergraduate courses serve to reveal those rare students who have marked research ability. Perhaps proseminars for selected upper classmen might be employed successfully to this end. A stimulating teacher is, however, the most effective agency for encouraging able undergraduates to continue their studies for an advanced degree. An evident personal interest shown in a high-class student by the more mature members of a department will help much. The undergraduate history club may be made a useful medium to arouse interest in research, while the possibility of publishing worth-while papers in local historical journals or other channels of publication is always a spur to commendable work. Doubtless more first-rate students would enter the graduate schools in history if the monetary rewards to be anticipated by holders of M.A. and Ph.D. degrees were more enticing.

We believe it generally inadvisable for a student in history to take all his graduate work for the doctorate at the university where he received his bachelor’s degree. A student with an eye to his success in the doctoral examination or to letters of recommendation for a teaching position often hesitates to take graduate courses at a university from which he does not plan to secure his degree or from instructors who are not regularly members of that faculty. Although these are practical considerations of some weight, we would urge him to spend as much as one of the three or more years of his graduate work at another university under men recognized as experts in the field of his major interest. To encourage this, we recommend that departments of history assist the interchange of students between universities by the award of more traveling fellowships. We understand that there is a growing tendency to do this and, in our opinion, it can result only in good. We suggest also that some scholarships and assistantships might be awarded for the duration of a summer session only.

To equip young scholars for the new tasks of the historian we believe that, without sacrificing thoroughness of training in their chosen field, they should be encouraged as graduate students to elect the needed tool courses in the allied disciplines. Because most professional historians are dependent upon teaching for their livelihood, a graduate course, given by a member of the history faculty, on the teaching of college history may well merit consideration.

The research activity of those who hold the Ph.D. degree in history has been carefully surveyed in an article by Professor M. W. Jernegan. Attention is invited also to the elaborate analysis of teaching and research loads of college history teachers recently made under the auspices of the American Association of University Professors. A heavy teaching load is often a deterrent to productive scholarship; yet for those who have the will to do research, ample opportunity is always at hand for valuable studies in local or regional history and for mutually profitable affiliation with the members of a local historical society. Sustained interest in historical investigations may be fostered by assigning subjects for doctoral dissertations which are of sufficient scope to impel additional research after the degree is conferred. If each graduate school of history by means of a news letter would occasionally inform its alumni concerning the research activities of their former fellow students, it might impel a few of the sterile to emulate those who are productive. Statewide conferences of history teachers for the exchange of information relative to common problems might well encourage individual and cooperative research efforts, particularly in local and regional history.

IV. Improvement of Research Methods

Methodology is generally taught in the graduate schools as a distinct course, and the conference believes that the manuals available for this work are sufficiently meritorious. There is, however, a real need for a manual for local amateur workers in history to assist them in attaining higher professional standards. Moreover, in the work of the customary methods course the present emphasis on critical operations should be supplemented by an equal emphasis on the synthetic operations, i.e. the organization and integration of material collected. It seems desirable to continue the practice of requiring a methods course of all first-year students in the graduate school. A satisfactory manual for research work in newspapers is also much needed. This manual should give full information as to the reliability and the importance for various fields of leading American newspapers. There is some doubt, however, whether such a manual can be prepared until a larger number of separate studies, each dealing with the history of a single newspaper, shall have been made.

According to present practices, some seminars are conceived as cooperative enterprises in which each student works on a project related to a common theme, while, in others, the student investigates an individual subject in isolation. The former procedure does not appear to be so well adapted to the requirements of thesis work as the latter, whereas the latter method often deadens the interest of students who do not participate in a given report. The conference strongly favors as much cooperation among the members of a seminar group as possible.

It is unfortunate that many seminars are now so large as to interfere seriously with the effectiveness of the seminar method of teaching. It seems probable, however, that there has been substantial progress made in seminar instruction during the past twenty years. Attention is called to the University of Chicago plan which exempts candidates for the master’s degree from formal seminar work and substitutes a laboratory or criticisms course dealing with the materials, methods and problems in a given field, supplemented by exercises in collecting and criticizing material on important historical subjects. There is need for further experimentation in seminar methods, and means for exchanging the results of such experiments should be made avail able. A group meeting on this subject might advantageously be arranged for some session of the Americas Historical Association.

With regard to contributory techniques, such training is best obtained by individual students when con fronted by a given need. Any definite set of requirements along this line would probably do more harm than good.

The conference questions the adequacy of a study of the older historians as a means of establishing good writing habits among neophytes. Nevertheless, in some way the literary quality of historical writing should be improved. More emphasis needs to be put on the quality of work done and less on the quantity of detailed material presented in written form. It seems obvious that there is a close connection between good thinking and good writing. A thesis which lacks organization, clarity, emphasis and coherence often indicates that the writer has failed to perform the essential synthetic operations of classifying material, reasoning, forming conclusions and integrating the facts discovered.

The usual language requirements should be adhered to strictly and even strengthened. We regard this as especially important for American history, a subject often beset by students deficient in elementary disciplinary training. It seems particularly desirable that a student should fulfill the language requirements before progressing far with his graduate work. Unfortunately there is a marked tendency for the language requirement, especially in the case of German, to be met by dubious means-a situation that does not contribute to the integrity of either the student or the profession. The unreasoning opposition during the World War to the study of German in colleges and secondary schools accounts for much of the distress the German requirement causes graduate students. As the war-time prejudice dies down and the study of the German language receives again its normal emphasis, the situation will doubtless be less perplexing. Bibliographies of books and articles on American history have been compiled in some universities in order to give more point to German language reading; and greater attention to this obvious means of cultivating interest might well be undertaken generally. It seems reasonable to suppose that, in the future, both French and German writers will concern themselves more with American history than has hitherto been the case. If this be true, any letdown in the requirement just now would be a serious blunder.

V. Improvement of Research Organization

We feel that the American Historical Association has benefited very materially from its membership in, and cooperation with the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies. There is a rather general impression, however, that greater publicity should be given to the grants-in-aid made by the latter body, and perhaps also a better definition of the scope of these grants, inasmuch as the support available from this source is not sufficiently known to the historical guild.

A beginning has been made at a score or more universities in setting up local research councils for the social sciences. These deserve continued support. The conference, however, raises the question whether it would not be better to have such bodies encourage, by financial support and otherwise, the research projects of individual scholars who have a piece of work already well under way, rather than to limit their energies so largely to cooperative projects.

The conference recommends the creation of some kind of regional research agencies to take in a territory larger than the ordinary state. These regions might well include several states, and our metropolitan centers furnish perhaps the best clue to determining natural boundaries. The Federal Reserve districts have been suggested as possible units, but it is recognized clearly that there must be, and should be, much overlapping of territory. Surveys of sources, and surveys of research accomplishments with a view to determining what remains to be done, might well be made for each region. An example of the latter type of work is an article by Joseph R. Starr, published in Minnesota History, Vol. IX, which points out “Some Gaps in the History of the Northwest.”

Professional historians should be urged to take a more lively interest in the work of historical societies by encouraging the publication of documentary materials and in other ways improving the scholarly level of the journals of these societies, as well as by guiding their activities as collectors and editors of historical materials. The publications of these societies may be used as vehicles for printing the products of the research activities of members and students of the academic departments of history. Certain of the stronger and more ably directed state historical societies might profitably be subsidized by foundations to carry out such cooperative projects as the cataloguing of manuscript materials in the state, the preparation of bibliographies and newspaper check lists, etc.

State historical societies and commissions should be encouraged to undertake research and collecting programs in collaboration with one another. The cooperative work carried out by Dr. N. D. Mereness in the government archives for seven Mississippi Valley states is an example of great value. A similar joint enterprise might well be instituted at the archives in Ottawa, a rich depository for material of great importance to both Canadian and American history. Other cooperative projects, on a wider regional basis, might readily be suggested, such as studies of steamboating on the Mississippi, phases of the history of the Great Lakes region and the fur trade. By such means, also progress might be made in reaching tested conclusions as regards the interstate migration of men and ideas.

VI. Publication Problems

The annual publication of abstracts of doctoral dissertations and of lists of completed masters’ theses seems worthy of indorsement. Reproduction of especially meritorious theses by some inexpensive offset-printing process could readily provide for the needs of libraries and of scholars.

Professional journals of national scope seem to have achieved relatively satisfactory results. Certain state and local journals reflect the lack of high professional standards and might well be improved.

There may be a place for a series in which meritorious theses and other monographs of about one hundred pages in length could be published, although, with this exception, present channels of publication are apparently sufficient. It is assumed that university presses will not be forced to increase the costs of publication to writers of monographs-a tendency which we would view with apprehension.

VII. Financial Needs for the Promotion of Research

Historical research receives aid from research funds in the larger institutions, but, in most cases, not in sufficient amounts. In the smaller institutions, many of which are large enough to do creditable graduate work, there is little or no aid. In most institutions there seems to be an uneven distribution of the funds at the disposal of graduate committees, to the detriment of history. An inquiry sent to the various educational institutions would doubtless produce more exact information on this point.

The conference is not aware of any cooperative projects in progress that need financial aid from a foundation; but many laudable undertakings of the kind would arise if there were encouraging prospects of aid. Many such have been suggested in earlier paragraphs of this report. Great progress has been made with respect to postdoctoral fellowships and grants-in-aid, but there are still deserving projects that remain unworked for lack of financial assistance. We recommend greater aggressiveness on the part of historical scholars in seeking the funds they need. The example of the natural scientists, who never seem to lack for funds, might well be followed.

Conclusion and Summary

From the foregoing recommendations the conference asks special consideration for the following:

  1. Regional surveys should be undertaken in large areas (not necessarily mutually exclusive) to determine what work has already been done and what gaps remain to be filled.
  2. Group conferences for a genuine exchange of ideas and information among scholars of like interests should become a regular part of the meetings of the American Historical Association and other similar historical gatherings.
  3. Inventories of existing manuscript collections should be made, presumably under the direction of the Public Archives Commission of the American Historical Association, and a plan for pooling the results of such inventories at a centrally located institution like the Library of Congress should be worked out.
  4. The American Historical Association is urged to promote a project now before the American Library Association for the publication of a union list of newspaper files.
  5. Additional resources should be made available to the Historical Manuscripts Commission, or some similar agency, to begin a program of active publication. Types of work needing to be done are:
    1. the assembling and publication of the papers of those presidents for whom no adequate printed collections now exist
    2. the assembling and publication of source materials relating to land sales and landholdings in the United States.
  6. Other publication projects which the American Historical Association might well undertake, or cause to be undertaken, are:
    1. A bibliography and inventory of extant files of foreign-language newspapers.
    2. A thoroughgoing revision of Channing, Hart and Turner’s Guide to the Study of American History.
    3. An archives manual.
    4. A manual for the use of local amateur historical workers.
    5. An historical guide to leading American newspapers.
    6. Brief summaries of doctoral dissertations and lists of completed masters’ theses.
  7. Closer relations between the historical workers of Canada and of the United States should be encouraged in order to stimulate cooperative projects both in the writing of history and in the collection of historical sources.

J. D. Hicks, Chairman
C. P. Nettels, Secretary
T. C. Blegen
A. C. Cole
E. M. Coulter
V. W. Crane
M. L. Hansen
W. T. Hutchinson
F. L. Mott
Carl Wittke

November 7-8, 1931.

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