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The AHC - Towards the Next Millennium


Professor Kevin Schürer, the President of the AHC


1 Introduction
2 Getting our message across
3 A publication policy proposal
4 The History and Computing journal
5 The IAHC and the affiliated branches
6 Conferences and workshops
7 Outreach activities
8 Changes to the constitution
9 Conclusion

1 Introduction

I know that the use of titles such as ‘towards the next millennium’ is somewhat of a cliché these days. Such a term is fast-becoming both over-used and mis-used, but in this instance its use seems totally justified. Having taken over from Jan Oldervoll as President of the International Association for History and Computing in July 1997, my term of office will come to an end just four or so months before the third millennium dawns. As historians we are, of course, all aware that due to the formalization of Christian chronology by the Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguous in 525 AD the third Christian millennium does not commerce until January 1, 2001. As historians we should also be aware that traditionally the coming of a new millennium is widely recognized as a period of inward reflection, as well as a time for exoneration and forgiveness. Thus, it seems highly appropriate to me that my term as President, coinciding as it does with the run-up to the next millennium, is used as a period of reflection, a period in which we set our house in order in preparation for the new era which lies ahead. In order to start this process of reflection, I offer what follows as a discussion document. I hope it will be circulated to all AHC members and that any comments, suggestions, concerns and criticisms will either be returned to me directly, or to the Officers of the national branches and affiliated bodies. Only with a full and frank discussion will the AHC be able to plan and put into motion a programme of action for its future development.

The International AHC (hereafter IAHC, to distinguish it from the various national branches of the AHC and affiliated bodies) as presently constituted is now in its tenth year. Much has been achieved over the last decade – by way of illustration, one can point to the foundation of many new national branches and affiliated groups, a process that still continues; successful and memorable conferences; innovative workshops groups giving rise to timely, instructive publications; and, of course, the continued success of the IAHC’s journal History and Computing. But let us not forget that this is a time of inner reflection. We should not become complacent in the shadow of our success. We should not overlook our failures and shortcomings at the expense of dwelling on our achievements. In true millennial tradition I do not intend to focus this document on what we have done, but rather on what we have left undone. This does not mean that what follows should be taken negatively, for by concentrating on the IAHC’s weaknesses and setting in place a strategy to overcome them in the short term, we will be better placed to build on our strengths in the longer term future.

2 Getting our message across

We live in the age of the political ‘sound-bite’ and the corporate ‘mission statement’. I am not an enthusiastic supporter of either. (Can one imagine Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg address’ or Pericles’s ‘Funeral speech’ being reduced to emotive sound bites?) However, their current popularity serves, I think, to highlight the importance of publicity and promotion. It is increasingly the case that just having a good product will not necessarily bring an instant flood of demand. The potential consumers of the product, regardless of its quality, need to be aware of its existence and convinced of its value or utility. In other words, having a worthwhile message is one thing, getting the message across to others is something which is entirely different.

The IAHC has both a worthy and important message, and its various publications and activities constitute a high quality and good-value product. But are we guilty of not getting our message across? To my mind the IAHC has two basic rôles: first, to promote the use of IT and computing in the teaching and research of history; second, to develop, evaluate, and disseminate computer-based methodology and technique in the study of history. The two are, of course, to a certain extent overlapping. But I would draw a straight-forward distinction between the two. The former is based on the principle of conversion, attempting to convince non-computer using historians why they should become computer users. The second is based on the principle of advancement, aiming to improve the skills of the computer-using historian and to develop ‘historical computation’ as a recognized intellectual exercise within the discipline of history. Over the last ten years I fear that we have sometimes blurred the distinction between the two, and at other times concentrated far too much on the second of the two rôles. Particularly in recent years, I believe that we have had too great a tendency to preach the same story to the converted, hence falling membership. Although there is perhaps a certain comfort in this, there is a real fear that we risk a gradual decline leading to eventual extinction without the process of rejuvenation that new membership through conversion brings. If our journal and other publications are known and circulated only amongst ourselves and our conference papers are given and heard only by a dedicated group of IAHC members, then we certainly are guilty of not getting our message across.

So what is to be done? To begin with, I would argue that we need to use our publications to greater effect in order to promote the cause of the IAHC and fulfill our two main rôles as defined above. Over the past decade the AHC has published a great many and varied things, at both an international and national level. The list includes the international journal History and Computing; some volumes in the Halbgraue Reihe zur historischen Fachinformatik (although strictly speaking these were a publication of the Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte on behalf of the IAHC); the international conference volumes; and a number of electronic-based publications. The collective output over the last ten years has been impressive both in terms of its quantity and quality. However due to the lack of any clear publications strategy or advertising policy relating to those things which we have produced, I would maintain that the AHC publications amount more to an opportunity lost than an opportunity gained.

The lack of a focused publications policy is evident in the fact that AHC publications are, I suggest, rarely read outside of our membership, and moreover, I doubt if more than a handful of people hold the whole collection of AHC publications, or for that matter, even know where to obtain them all from. In part, this problem that been exacerbated by the decision to allow national branches to independently determine the published outcome of the proceedings of IAHC conferences. If we are to get our message across, especially to the mass of doubting-Thomas’s formed by our non computer-using historian colleagues, then our publications need to be accessible, and at least some have to address issues that concern both the computer literate and non-literate historian alike.

3 A publication policy proposal

To my mind the major factor in getting our message across lies in having an attractive and workable publications strategy. If the IAHC is to establish a successful publications policy then the first thing that the Association needs to do is to ask itself three basic questions. What types of publication do we wish to publish? What are the likely audiences for each? In what format should each appear and be disseminated? In order to provide a basis for discussion I have set out below a model publications policy which consists of three main categories or types of publication. I should add that each of these is separate from the journal which will be discussed in a later section of this document.

Category I – Book-length publications

Category II – Guides, handbooks and manuals

Category III – Ephemeral

Each of these three categories should fulfill a distinct purpose. The first could be seen to a large extent as being out-reaching, a ‘flag-ship’ publication specifically directed at a broad audience of historians, many of whom would be outside of the IAHC. Types two and three, although having wider implications, might be seen as being targeted more specifically at those already within the IAHC community. It is tempting, also, to equate a measure of durability to each of these three categories. The first might be seen as having a long-term shelf-life, the second, more of a medium term and the third a clear short-term readership.

Once agreement has been reached on the broad categories of publication, decisions then have to be made about the best format in which to produce the varying categories of publication. In this regard, it is my contention that the IAHC has been notoriously bad at marketing the products it produces, in particular making its wares available and accessible to historians both inside and outside of the IAHC. This clearly, is particularly important to those would-be publications falling in Category I, and to a lesser extent those in Category II. As it stands the IAHC has no real mechanism for distributing its products to historians outside of our current membership. With this in mind a key question that needs to be addressed and answered is does the IAHC wish to produce its publications within its own resources and framework or does it wish to reach an agreement with a commercial publisher which will produce and disseminate our publications for us?

Arguments could be put both for and against working with commercial publishers, but the main points as I see them are as follows.

In consequence I would suggest that the IAHC needs to develop a publications policy based on a mixture of ‘commercially-orientated’ and ‘in-house’ publication. This could be applied as follows:

One last point: in each of these layers of publications we must not lose sight of who our intended audience is or should be. In particular, we must, as I have already indicated, avoid falling into the trap of overly ‘preaching to the converted’. There are still a lot of historians out there who would not think of using a computer beyond word-processing and collecting e-mail. In part, it is our job to convince them otherwise. In this, we need to ensure that our publication policy also allows for the publication and distribution of what I call ‘Why should I?’ and ‘How to’ manuals, as well as guides to good practice which are deliberately aimed at a largely, non or early stage computing historical audience. In this regard we should be prepared to sponsor and collaborate with other bodies within the humanities with similar pedagogical aims (including, of course, national branches), as well encourage members to place appropriate ‘mission statement’ pieces in mainstream (non-technical) journals. The same logic, of course, could also be applied to our conference activities.

4 The History and Computing journal

In the light of this discussion and the proposal outlined above, the position of the journal clearly needs to be considered. Let me start by stating clearly that I do not see the three categories of publication mentioned above as replacing the journal. I firmly believe, and I think that most would agree, that the IAHC needs a periodical publication which runs alongside any other publication series it may plan. In consequence then, the IAHC also needs to ensure that the proposed multi-level publication series does not starve the journal of material nor detract from it. Ideally it should enhance and support the journal (and vice versa). However, in building a publications strategy the IAHC should consider if the range and content of the journal are compatible with any new publication series it wishes to create. At present the journal is a mixture of articles, reviews and news reports. It is both newsletter to the membership and learned journal at the same time. Is this balance right given the publications strategy being proposed in this document? My proposals for the journal in relation to the publication strategy outlined above as in outline as follows:

In thinking about switching the journal to a Year Book we should also take this opportunity to think carefully about the management of this publication. I think that the editor of the journal, Steve Baskerville, would be the first to admit that History and Computing is not without its problems. Despite the marvelous efforts of Steve, and his editorial predecessor, Bob Morris, the journal continuously faces difficulties in getting a quality product to the membership. In my view, a large part of the problem rests with the fact that the IAHC does very little to support the journal. The members are not forthcoming as they might be in submitting articles and reviews for publication, and although the journal officially has an editorial board, it has not to my knowledge ever met. To help try to solve these problems in production I propose that we implement the following policy:

I would go even further in suggesting that the new editorial board provides the basis of a wider editorial board which reviews the entire publication output of the IAHC in line with the publications strategy I have proposed above.

5 The IAHC and the affiliated branches

One further implication of this discussion document that needs to be considered is the rôle and position of the various affiliated branches of the AHC in relation with the IAHC. The highly federal system which the AHC has constitutionally adopted has a lot to commend it. However, the present system of raising subscriptions to the AHC at a national level and sending revenues and information relating to those who should receive the journal to Edinburgh University Press (EUP – the present publishers of the journal) is simply not working. This has a marked detrimental effect on the printing of EUP and also results in members who should receive the journal not doing so, and vice versa. Despite repeated attempts over past years to try to rectify this situation, no improvement is in view. This is not only detrimental to the publication of the journal and the relationship with our publisher, but in my experience of other societies like ours, members not receiving publications that they think they have paid for is the best way possible to lose members.

However, it is not only the journal which is hampered by the federal structure under which we operate. Since there is no complete central database of IAHC members and their interests there is no working mechanism in place by which either the IAHC or any of the affiliated branches can contact all IAHC members. For example, it is impossible for the organizers of international conferences to send a mailing to all IAHC members, electronically or otherwise. This problem of communication is clearly detrimental to the general administration and organization of the IAHC. It is ironic that in writing this discussion document I am aware that not all members of the IAHC will necessary receive a copy! So what is to be done?

To me the only practicable solution is to centralize what is at present a very de-centralized system and to transfer information and revenues from the top-down rather than from the bottom-up. However, the move to a more centralized form of subscription will have clear implications for the constitution to the IAHC. The journal’s publishers EUP have indicated that they would be prepared to manage a centralized membership list on behalf of the IAHC and pass on information to the AHC bodies as required. This solution will only work successfully if all members paying a subscription – including both those buying the journal and those not – do so directly to a single address point, namely EUP. Since different affiliated national bodies levy different membership rates, and wish to retain the right to do so, this creates a further problem. One solution to this dilemma that we should consider is to disentangle the existing links between the IAHC and the composite national and affiliated bodies, and for the IAHC to become an individual based organization. In other words, although the IAHC would continue to encourage and support the activities of local and national bodies, and vice versa, subscription to the IAHC would be separated entirely from any subscription to local or national bodies. In many ways this is administratively the easiest solution, however, I fear that it may result in a fragmentation of AHC-wide activities and identity. In consequence, although views will of course differ, my preferred solution is as follows:

This system would to my mind have several advantages over the current situation.

However, such a system is not without potential problems. Chief among these is the fact that it would only be practical for a centralized subscription service to accept payments in Sterling (assuming it was hosted at EUP), Euros, or US Dollars. In the short term this may seem unsuitable for some members, but with the rapid spread of international banking and the likelihood that many members could subscribe via credit card payments, the problems of currency transfers may not be as great as they first appear. Second, administering a centralized subscription service, especially with the need to re-distribute information and revenues to national affiliated bodies, is no small undertaking. It is certainly beyond what should reasonable be expected from a volunteer IAHC Treasurer, working unpaid in their ‘free-time’. As I have already stated there is a strong indication that the publishers of the journal would undertake this task for us (an amazing and generous offer if I may say so!), but should they not, I would recommend that the IAHC investigates the possibility of a dedicated subscription service undertaking this task, providing the cost did not necessitate an excessive increase in subscription levels. Access to information about our membership is vital to everything we do, at both the international and national level and as such we must ensure that whatever system we put in place works and works well. Without it we may well cease to function as an international Association!

In addition to the system of membership and subscription the relationship between the IAHC and the affiliated branches needs to be considered in the light of the proposals that I have sketched for a new IAHC publications policy. In particular, the precedent whereby the local hosts of IAHC conferences can make their own arrangements for the publication of conference proceedings needs to be reviewed. I would recommend that this practice ceases and instead the IAHC works with and acts on behalf of national branches to facilitate the publication of conference proceedings and other suitable material (both national and international) within a common framework. This suggestion is not, however, aimed at restricting the publication options open to the affiliated bodies, but rather at widening them. Any national body can publish whatever it wants, in whatever form it likes and distribute it to who ever it likes, but these would not be publications of the IAHC. My aim is simply for the IAHC to establish a reputable publication series with a format under which any national body, individual member and non-member alike is able to submit proposals which in turn will be reviewed by an IAHC publications committee. The key point is that by establishing an internationally recognized and marketed publications series, hopefully individual members will want to have their work published in that series.

6 Conferences and workshops

In addition to the journal, the main ‘output’ of the IAHC has in the past been its conferences and workshops. Both have served a vitally important rôle, but both, I think, are in need of review. Let me start with workshops. The series of IAHC-sponsored workshops was established in 1991 under the Presidency of Manfred Thaller as part of an engaging and challenging scientific programme of activities for the IAHC. To my knowledge there are currently eight workshops in existence:

The foundation of these workshops, or sub-groups as they are officially termed, created a tremendous burst of activity, generated many influential meetings and gave rise to a number of important and timely publications, mainly within the Halbgraue Reihe zur historischen Fachinformatik. However, more recently most of the sub-groups have been inactive. Also, since each sub-group of the IAHC is constitutionally bound to ‘report in writing to the Council once a year’ and none have done so over the past year, they are now all technically unconstitutional and defunct. In order to revitalize what has been one of the most active and rewarding areas of the IAHC I propose the following:

Clearly I see a need for the work and enthusiasm generated by the sub-group to be fed in directly to the IAHC conferences. We should not forget that the IAHC itself grew out of a conference and that conferences provide an important platform and opportunity for our members to meet and discuss their common interests, as well of course, to hopefully hear new ideas and witness new techniques and methodological approaches. Nobody would deny the value of the IAHC conference.

To date it has been our practice to hold international conferences on an annual basis. In part this policy was implemented to reflect our ‘missionary’ position, and in particular to aid ‘youthful’ branches in attracting new members. However, ten years down the track, I do have serious doubts about whether the AHC both needs annual conferences at an international level, and moreover can sustain annual conferences at an international level. In recent years it has been my impression that most of the IAHC conferences have not actually been very international in character and content, drawing mainly on local national support. If this is becoming an established trend I would begin to question the internationality of IAHC conferences. To my mind the distinction between national branch conferences and IAHC conferences is gradually becoming less and less. So if international conferences have lost their distinctiveness, why have them at all?

I firmly believe that we do need to have international conferences, but also that they need to be exactly that, distinctly international. With this goal in view I am mindful of the fact that we are the exception. Most international professional academic associations do not hold conferences on an annual basis. The excepted cycle is usually every four year, or at most every two. Staging a truly international event takes a lot of planning and hard work, not only in terms of organizing sessions and ‘booking’ key note speakers, but also seeking sponsorship and financial assistance. It also takes time for a great many prospective conference delegates to find the funding that will allow them to attend. Currently we have arrangements in place to hold conferences each year up to and including 2000. Thereafter, I propose that we agree to hold IAHC conferences every two years. Linked to this proposal the IAHC should endeavour to do more to encourage and support the numerous activities of the national branches, including their annual conferences and meetings, as well as supporting the activities of workshop groups in the periods between conferences. Equally, the IAHC should, where possible, aim to stage special sessions (maybe workshop orientated) in connection with other key conferences, such as the European Social Science Association conferences.

7 Outreach activities

When the IAHC was formed a decade ago we had high hopes that it would become the recognized professional group in its field and as such would find its voice heard in policy making decisions. This was all part and parcel of what I have already termed ‘getting our message across’. This theme was taken up whole-heartedly by Manfred Thaller in his 1991 paper on the activities of the IAHC. In this he stressed the need to raise our public standing and enhance our relationship with other professional organizations, educational authorities and research funding authorities, in particular. In this respect, I would suggest that the impact of the IAHC has at best been muted. Let me give two examples from my own national backyard. Over the course of the past two years all university History Departments in the UK have been assessed by the higher education funding councils in terms of the quality and quantity of their research output. Unconnected to this, over the same period the Public Records Office (the National Archives) have established an Electronic Records Centre in order to preserve some of the electronic files currently being created by government departments for future generations of historians to use. Despite the centrality of both of these developments to the work that we do as computer-using historians, neither the IAHC nor the AHC-UK were formally consulted over these matters, unlike, for example, the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association. In short, as a professional association, we are not always making an impact where it matters.

Of course, much in these matters varies from country to country depending on the activities, focus and contacts of local branches, but in general I believe we need to be working harder at ‘getting our message across’ if we are, indeed, to be openly recognized as the professional body in its field. Perhaps we are not really sure what our message is. In order to address this issue, what I propose is that a round-table session be convened at the next IHAC conference in Toledo, which is open to all members and panelled by the Officers of the IAHC Council and the various branch representatives. Its aim should be the production, for delivery at the following conference, of a high-quality document setting our activities, aims and objectives. Once the content of this document has been agreed, it should then be printed as a standard brochure (in a number of languages, of course) which could then be used to publicize our existence in a wider context.

8 Changes to the constitution

In order to enact many of the changes I have proposed above, especially those in relation to the proposed changes to the administrative structure of the IAHC, it is necessary to undertaken various changes to our existing constitution (the text of which is appended below). The changes are not as radical as one may think. Basically, as I see it clauses 5, 6 and 27 would need amendment and some new clauses added. I propose, therefore, that at the next AGM in Toledo, that clauses 5, 6 and 27 be revised to read as follows.

5. Membership of the IAHC is gained by direct communication with the IAHC’s subscription service. The subscription shall be payable on 1st January, and is for the calendar year. Subscriptions of new members joining after 1st April shall be included in the following year's accounting. The rate of the annual subscription to the IAHC shall be fixed by the Council.

6. The IAHC shall communicate to the Secretaries of member organizations and associate organizations of the IAHC details of any members subscribing to that organization via the IAHC by 1st March each year, and shall transfer the total subscription collected on their behalf, net of transfer charges, to the Treasurers of member organizations and associate organizations by 31st March.

27. Two editors of History and Computing shall be appointed by Council in consultation with the journal's publishers. Initially, one of the two editors should be appointed for a period of three years, the other for a period of five years. Thereafter, editors should be appointed for a period of five years. The Editorial Board of the journal shall also act as members of the publications committee of the IAHC, in conjunction with the Publications Officer, IAHC Web-Master and the IAHC H-Net coordinator.

We also need some additional clauses in the section ‘Officers of the Association’ defining the roles of posts of Publications Officer, IAHC Web-Master and the IAHC H-Net coordinator. Equally, if the membership structure is rearranged in line with my proposal above, the post of direct membership secretary may become redundant.

9 Conclusion

The IAHC has over the last ten years been a hugely successful organization. It is not only a rigorous academically challenging organization, it is also a very friendly and sociable association. These are all quantities that we would wish to up-hold and maintain. However, I believe that we cannot build on our strengths unless we are prepared to make changes. I have written this document in order to set out at the beginning of my term as President, what changes, I believe, need to be made. It is however, a discussion document, with the emphasis very much on discussion. I hope that all our members will have the opportunity and time to read it and reflect on the proposals I have made.

The Constitution of the Association for History and Computing

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