by AndrewMc | 10/13/2009 07:00:00 AM
This is the first in what will be a series of interviews with the folks in professional organizations for historians, teachers, and those interested in history. There are dozens and dozens of such organizations, and it occurred to me that we might not know much about the people who make those organizations work.

We're going to start with the American Historical Association. They're the umbrella organization for historians in the United States, although there are members from around the world. I sent a series of questions to Rob Townsend. From his bio:

Robert serves as senior staff assistant to the Association's Research Division, maintains databases and statistics on the historical profession in the U.S., and oversees print and online publications produced at the AHA headquarters office. He is the author of over 150 articles on various aspects of history, higher education, and electronic publishing in Perspectives on History, AHA Today, the OAH Newsletter, New Directions in Higher Education, and the American Association of University Presses Exchange. He received his PhD from George Mason University in 2009, and is currently revising his dissertation under the working title “Making History: Scholarship and Professionalization in the Discipline, 1880–1940.”

Follow me for the interview . . .

Your name? Robert B. Townsend

Your organization? American Historical Association

Your position? Assistant Director, Research and Publications

How long have you been with them? 20 years

About how many members in your organization? Around 15,000

Who is the organization’s main professional constituency? Our primary professional constituency has traditionally been research historians in four-year colleges and universities. Over the past two decades the leadership of the Association has recognized that this represents only a portion of the work taking place in the discipline, and has been reaching out to other constituencies, most notably teachers and public historians.

What is the main journal for your organization? The American Historical Review.

What are some of the things that have most changed in your organization over the past 10 years? 25?

Without a doubt, the most significant change in the organization is the shift online, and the host of secondary issues arising from online publication of history and scholarship. When I started here in 1989, we were still preparing publications for a life on paper—using razor blades and tape for layout. Moving onto the web has significantly expanded the scope and reach of the Association. It allows us to better fulfill our original mandate to preserve and promote history, and I think it has also helped make the leadership more conscious of the larger audience we should serve—including those who practice history professionally outside of academia.

What do you see as some of the major challenges facing your organization going into the near future?

The flip side to the benefits of new media is the problem of trying to pay for it. The Internet may have remarkably low threshold costs to get in, but the expenses grow remarkably fast as soon as you try to do something on a significant scale or make a novel use of the technology. That was quite evident in the Gutenberg-e program, which tried to develop scholarly monographs that could take advantage of the medium, and it has been our experience as we try to stay up-to-date and engaged with a variety of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 projects. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any source of revenue that comes close to covering the costs involved. (I tried to lay all this out in the article at ).

What would be your advice for an undergraduate considering going into the field covered by your organization in terms of how to position themselves for the job market?

History still seems uniquely positioned to serve as a starting point for a wide range of careers, since it teaches students how to sift evidence, think critically, and write well. I think history provides a set of skills that becomes ever more useful in an information-based economy.

How is your organization coping with, or exploiting, the challenges of new media such as blogging, Twitter, Facebook, &c. &c.

We established a blog three years ago, and have been very pleased with the amount of interest and attention it has elicited. Admittedly, it has been a bit of a challenge to balance the institutional gravitas that comes with working at the AHA with the desire to make it an interesting and engaging blog. But I would like to think we have carried that off pretty well. At the very least, I think it has helped to open up more dialogue with and among members, and perhaps diminish the sense that the AHA is just a nameless faceless bureaucracy in D.C.

We have been looking to get into other areas of the Web 2.0 space (Facebook, LinkedIn), but discovered some members have already established spaces there in our name. We also ventured into wikis with our Archiveswiki project. That has elicited rather less interest than I’d hoped. Thus far it has generated rather more interest than actual participation from members of the discipline. But even within our economic constraints, it seems far better to experiment than to just sit back and watch change happen.

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