The AHA Asks “What About the Children?”

From Library Babel Fish, July 24, 2013

Today I found myself revisiting a blog post by Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press just as my Twitter stream was responding to the American Historical Association’s new statement on why historians’ dissertations must be protected from the public eye. Mark Sample remembered it and posted it to Twitter. Public streams of thought have these eddies and undercurrents that sweep back and bring up things from the past to bob along in the onward rush of ideas. Which is, itself, something of an example of what Doug Armato was describing as the way scholarship works today.

The posts are fascinating to read side-by-side because they take such different positions on what it is we are trying to do when we make scholarship public. What’s especially worth noting is that the publisher is more interested than the scholarly society is in how ideas flow in and out of various stages of development and how much more public this activity is today – and why that’s a good thing. Armato sees the publisher’s work as “pattern recognition” rather than gatekeeper or conveyor of disciplinary distinction: arise, tenured historian. By the power vested in publishers, we have certified you as a historian worth keeping on the payroll. That’s not what he does. He enables thoughtful pauses in the fast flow of information so that ideas can take on depth and nuance and reach a kind of coherent complexity by being still for a bit before they flow back into the ongoing rush. We have, he writes, “a common need to create a better, more interoperable system of scholarly communication and publication and a steady flow from the serial development of scholarship into the material event of scholarly publication and out again.”

The smart publisher today doesn’t want to introduce books to the world so new, so pristine, so original that they have never been seen or discussed in any form. Rather,

the current place of the individual book in this emerging ecosystem is as an area of highly concentrated, unitary scholarship amid a flow of less concentrated expression, with a membrane (let’s dub that membrane “peer review,” though it is more than that) regulating the passage between those environments as a form of osmosis.

He has no reservations about publishing a book that has been public, here and there serially in various forms, before. In fact, he sees that prior public activity as an opportunity to anticipate what book projects are likely to be worth taking on because he is able to see how readers are responding. The material itself is shaped usefully by that flow and will go on to join back into it. (As a matter of fact, as I read the blog post I opened a new tab to order a copy of the book he cites. That’s how it works.)

He has a fundamentally different view of the book and its purpose than the AHA does. The AHA believes that opening access to dissertations puts young historians at risk. They should be allowed to keep their dissertations under wraps for a period of time matching the traditional tenure clock. Dissertations are the rough draft of first books, and since the worth of historians is measured in books, not dissertation downloads, their ideas must not be squandered on the open internet but reserved for proper recognition and career rewards.

The argument is based on a common belief (though no evidence is provided) that publishers don’t want to publish books based on open access dissertations because libraries won’t buy them. The best way to solve this problem, then, is to make it difficult for people to gain access to dissertations. Then publishers will turn them into proper books and libraries will buy them and young historians will get tenure.

Well, there are a lot of problems with this solution. Libraries have been buying fewer books no matter whether they are based on dissertations or not; they won’t buy more books because dissertations go offline. Academic publishers no longer earn enough from libraries to base their decisions on what libraries might do. Quality publishers never did (so far as I can  tell) assume dissertations were all but ready to be put between boards and sold. Following the rules in the traditional way no longer leads to tenure. It seems odd that historians should seek obscurity by safely locking dissertations up for an almost biblical period of time, available only through interlibrary loan and UMI’s services that make dissertations available on microfilm and through and . . . wait, Amazon?

Yes, the company that has preserved and sold copies of dissertations since 1938 now makes them available through modern bookselling channels unless the author opts out. (Edited to add: Proquest no longer distributes dissertations through third-party vendors.) Nowhere in the AHA’s statement does it take UMI/ProQuest to task for selling their wares more efficiently, presumably because dissertations shouldn’t be digital in the first place. Microform is newfangled enough, thank you.

Strangely enough, the statement stipulates that libraries ought to be required to store printed copies of embargoed dissertations on their shelves. If an embargo is a good idea, I’m not sure why libraries should have printed copies. (They do share, you know, rather efficiently.) Is the library consecrated ground where dissertations should be laid to rest to await resurrection day and the second coming? I suspect the authors of this statement feel a conflict: there should be a tangible historical record of dissertations, but in order to preserve the primacy of the book and the value the first book conveys on scholars’ reputations, it must be made inaccessible. I recommend keeping them under the department chair’s bed, in that case, because inaccessibility isn’t what libraries are for.

There’s something weirdly helpless in this statement. Books are what matters to historians and that will never change. Publishers are an immutable force of nature, as are tenure and promotion committees. Librarians and program heads, however, can be told what to do. If they don’t change their ways “young historians” will lose the “unfettered ability . . . to revise their dissertations and obtain a publishing contract from a press” because those pesky online dissertations are standing between a scholar and a fetter-free book contract.

Turn the clock back. Put those printed dissertations on the shelf where they can be safely obscure. Protect the children.