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The American Shrugshouldercal Association

The American Historical Association yesterday released its “Statement on Policies Regarding the Embargoing of Completed History PhD Dissertations.” The tenor of the argument is stated in the first paragraph:

Because many universities no longer keep hard copies of dissertations deposited in their libraries, more and more institutions are requiring that all successfully defended dissertations be posted online, so that they are free and accessible to anyone who wants to read them. At the same time, however, an increasing number of university presses are reluctant to offer a publishing contract to newly minted PhDs whose dissertations have been freely available via online sources. Presumably, online readers will become familiar with an author’s particular argument, methodology, and archival sources, and will feel no need to buy the book once it is available. As a result, students who must post their dissertations online immediately after they receive their degree can find themselves at a serious disadvantage in their effort to get their first book published.

My Twitter feed, which admittedly consists mostly of anarcho-communist digital utopianists, went entirely ballistic, and (being solidly among them) so did I. The whole thing seemed to us to be myopic and rebarbative in the extreme. The fact that it was couched as a charitable gesture aimed at “young scholars” seemed particularly galling, since many of us suspected that it was the accomplishments of the aged that were being most clearly protected and preserved.

But as the furor dies down – and as “#ahagate” starts to seem perhaps a little too shrill a hashtag – I find myself reflecting on exactly why I find this statement so irritating, and I think it really comes down to this line that appears a bit later on:

History has been and remains a book-based discipline.

What is most surprising about this phrase is that it doesn’t complete the doxology (“and ever shall be.”) – that it doesn’t actually go ahead and say, “we must be a book-based discipline.” Because that is really the underlying presumption of the entire piece. The whole issue of scholarly publishing, promotion, tenure, hiring, dissertation work, access to graduate programs – all of it is treated as if it were some kind of fixed feature of the universe. “Alas,” the historians seem to say, “there’s nothing we can do about this lamentable situation. In fact, we are the ones who are really on the side of revolution – staging, as you can see, an embargo.”

But this isn’t some “situation” over which scholars have no control. If scholars decided that the book was no longer an acceptable medium for scholarly communication, the entire university press system would collapse within six months. Yesterday, Rosemary Feal (Executive Director of the Modern Language Association) tweeted that “Publishers do not want dissertations. They want innovative scholarship presented in readable fashion. Some good bks started as PhD theses.” But what publishers want is as absurd as talking about what my toaster wants. Publishers exist because of what scholars want, not the other way around.

I’ve met scholars (in history and in other disciplines) who tell me flat out that they just don’t like working with scholarly materials in digital form. Recently, a librarian at another institution told me that during one of their annual requests for lists of materials that should now be moved to offsite storage (a thing that may have intensified in recent years, but which has been routine for a very long time), there was an enormous backlash from the Mathematics department. They really preferred to walk over to the library, pull books and journals off the shelf, and work with them right there. I didn’t ask, but if I had to guess, I would say that it’s because for all our technical advances, online typography still isn’t up to the task of representing mathematical formulas as well as in print. If that’s true, I can’t really say I blame them. And I can respect that.

I also respect those who say that we (digital humanists, or whoever else) haven’t really developed a robust digital alternative to more traditional forms of long-form scholarship (which isn’t surprising, given that the codex has lasted for nearly two millenia). And many people who say that, are stating the case thoughtfully and not with some absurd argument about the ability to read texts while taking a bath. As someone who enjoys working in and reaping the benefits of the long-form genre, I have to say I agree. Or at least, I can see where they’re coming from. I have a couple thousand books in my study; I take the Kindle on airplanes. I am hardly a techno-conservative. And in any event, such issues seem to me to be entirely separate from whether dissertations, pre-press manuscripts, or even published print books should have online surrogates.

But again, what bothers me is not that the aha thinks books are the coin of the realm, but that they won’t admit that this is mainly a result of decisions made by people in power, and that those “people” are themselves. I can respect people who want to defend the way we do things. I have trouble respecting people who don’t think the system is theirs to defend, because they don’t think they’re part of the “we.”

[I made some slight changes to this post (after having first posted it), in areas where I thought I wasn’t making much sense. I would like to call upon the aha to do the same.]

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