The Role of Historical Monographs

      9 Comments on The Role of Historical Monographs

At a recent workshop in London, I had a conversation with a fellow graduate student about the relevance of history as an academic discipline. He held that the entire academic world was a farce: professors spent too little time in the classroom, producing books that nobody read, were overpaid, and basically a general waste. Beyond my initial confusion that a fellow history graduate student would have such low esteem of his profession and peers, I think its a trenchant criticism that needs to be dealt with. This echoed the recent discussion begun by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail about lazy professors, and rebutted by Clifford Orwin.

The teaching debate was played out between Wente and Orwin, and I think its an important one. But another important issue is the role of historical monographs.

The largest criticism is that many monographs are not widely read and are not accessible. This is true, in some ways. Part of the rationale of ActiveHistory.ca, for example, is to take research and analysis from these academic works and turn them into easily digestible pieces for public consumption. Print runs are short at academic presses, a few make their way to book stores, the rest to university libraries. Few make their way into the majority of Chapters/Indigos, for example, although recent works by Steve Penfold and Bryan Palmer have certainly had quite a bit of shelf space. Between the Lines Press has also been doing a spectacular job in marketing academic books to a mass market (Congrats to Ian McKay who was honoured by the Governor General a little over a week ago!).

But information is diffused into the public sphere by other means. I think the best example is the university lecture. It was really only after my comprehensive exams that I became truly aware of how much of the field list found its way into a variety of lectures, boiled down into easily digestable chunks for first-year undergraduates, or third-year Labour Studies majors, or honours students. These are formative experiences for many of these students, and they take this information into the broader world. Without this wealth of detailed, well researched materials, the teaching experiences at universities would be a far poorer one.

They also help inform popular writings. By this I don’t simply mean the popular histories that quickly come to mind, such as recent biographies of John A. MacDonald or the continual flurry of military history, but also the world of Canadian literature. What would Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion look like without Ian Radforth’s work on Finnish bushworkers, just to name one fairly famous example?

Sure, academic publishers require federal government aid to produce many monographs. Artists secure funding from various levels of government, as well, as do most cultural productions. The debate there is a much broader one about the role of the state in supporting various endeavours, and I think is a wider one than just the academic press.  I personally think the minimal subsidies from the federal government, through the Aid to Scholarly Publication program, are well warranted – just as artistic grants.

This is my brief interjection in the debate, and I’ve tried to keep it within the realm of 500 words. What do you think, readers? What’s the future of the historical monograph?

Stay tuned for my next post, where I deal with the Kindle. (Sneak preview: I had the opportunity to use one yesterday – and while it’s not there yet, this is going to shake up the publishing world! It’s amazing.)

9 thoughts on “The Role of Historical Monographs

  1. Lisa

    I’m curious to know what year that graduate student was in, Ian. I ask because if I had had a similar conversation with you last year, I would have given you a similar response re: monographs. For me it had everything to do with the intense stress and social dislocation caused by the intensive dissertation writing process. Even into October, when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I felt empty about the importance of my contribution to preserving historical memory or participating in historical debates.

    (Aside: this is also why I’m intrigued by what’s going on with Active History – I wrote my dissertation about the anti-nuclear movement and I couldn’t help but feel as I wrote about and studied these people who had done such important work that what I was doing – re: writing about them and pissing on my academic territory to make a historical argument that mattered very little in the grand scheme of things – was sort of pointless.)

    But teaching this year has softened a lot of my cynicism – HA! and I’m only working on contract. Historical monographs are so central to communicating a rich body of information – via different historical narratives and stories – to students. They make lectures interesting for students! Or, at least, I hope they do.

    But, I think there is still a criticism that can be made about monographs. Who the hell has time to read them when they’re teaching full time? I rely very heavily on the notes I have from books I read during my grad school course work.

    Wikipedia has also been – in lots of cases, but not all – a great place for finding good distillations of the stories told in various monographs. For me – in my lecture writing, anyway.

    Before you write about Kindle, you should check out Sean Kheraj’s blog post about it:

    http://seankheraj.wordpress.com/2009/11/05/why-historians-shouldn%E2%80%99t-count-on-the-kindle-digital-reading-and-historical-scholarship/

  2. Jim

    Thanks for this post Ian. I think that historical monographs remain important and I hope to publish one myself someday. However, I would like to see more publishers open to the idea of publishing sections, complete, or even extended versions of scholarly books online, without any access walls, under creative commons licenses. Spencer Weart’s book, The Discovery of Global Warming, is a really interesting example of dual publishing and it will be the subject of a future post on ActiveHistory.ca: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/

    If the public supports the writing and publishing of academic history, it should be freely available on the web. I know this will create difficult challenges for academic presses, but it should make the work of academic historians more accessible for both other academics and the wider public.

  3. Ian Post author

    Lisa: Thanks so much for your insightful post! This student was very junior, enrolled in his Masters.

    I think your point about the length of monographs given the time constraints that people, especially junior faculty and contract professors, are under is a good one. In my other side job as a book review editor at Left History, I’ve noticed that many books, especially written by junior faculty, are increasingly short. Many of them are under 200 pages excluding endnotes. I think this might help, although hopefully good things aren’t cut.

    And there’s great work on wikipedia, which is making a ton of work accessible to the public as well. I think there’s still something to be said for the review model, which ActiveHistory.ca has adopted. Something in between full peer-review and the journalistic model is what we aim at. I look forward to the day when some of the content on this website makes its way over to Wikipedia, and survives the edit wars there!

    Jim: I simply fear that given the difficulty the presses are in, such a model would be unsustainable for them. And we’d all be worse off in that case, since I do strongly believe in the importance of peer-reviewed historical monographs for advancing the historiography. There’d have to be a model for greater government funding to allow them to do such things. Right now, many scholarly publications are priced out of the general public and graduate student market – but that’s the publishing world, I suppose. I wish I knew more about that side of things!

    Of course, with the introduction of e-books, maybe such a thing could be possible in the long run (not the short run, as I think Sean points out very well).

    [edited Nov 30 @ 10:15pm to make a minor change to the second para]

  4. Sean Kheraj

    Ian:

    Your post raises a lot of questions that scholars are already asking (and have been asking for years) about the place of the historical monograph. I especially liked your defence of the university lecture. At least we know that the hours we put into writing those lectures are worthwhile.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Jim’s desire to see more academic presses adopt an open access publishing model, using Creative Commons licensing and free or low-cost electronic distribution. You can read more about how this exact model works at Athabasca University Press:

    http://seankheraj.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/pkp-conference-notes-highlights-and-athabasca-university-press/

    Keep up the great work with Active History. This is an important project.

  5. David

    A couple of things come to mind as I read this discussion.
    The first is that open access to academic works has become standard practice in many of the hard sciences (for those of you that are not familiar, I am referring to arxiv.org) It is generally accepted that when scholars submit an article for publication, they also submit a copy to this website that is freely accessible to anyone. If revisions are made following the peer-review process, the article is ammended at arxiv and the citation provided. The result is that scholars each day get a list of new articles in their subfield that they may read but that anyone interested in academic research has easy access to them as well. These are fields in which journal articles are the normal form of publishing new research but there is no good reason why something similar would not function in history (especially since more people can understand academic history publications than mathematics and military history buffs may be interested in things like the brewing Crawshaw/Graham debate over civil war finance).
    On the general matter of historical monographs, I very much agree with Ian on the continuing relevance of advanced historical research. The dissemination of important points through undergraduate lectures, textbooks, popular histories and the political commentary of academics all have an important contribution to society and rely upon orginal research by others. My only concern is that even inside academia, entire monographs are not sufficiently read because of their length. Even when we are generally interested in new work and using it to prepare lecture, we very rarely read every word published. As a result, I am not sure that the field would not be better off emphasizing the publication of the same work off the same extensive research in journal articles and 100 page pamphlets that will be read in their entirety. But that does not take away from the benefits to Canada of expanding historical knowledge through academic articles and books

  6. Adam Crymble

    The Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE) has a couple of open-access monographs targeted at digital humanists who want to learn new skills. I can tell you that they average about 3000 visitors per month and one of them has even been partially translated into Spanish by a reader. Not bad readership for works targeted at academics. It may not be a perfect model, but it’s an example of how there are ways to get a message out without traditional publishing models.

  7. Sean Kheraj

    Since this topic seems to be generating a lot of discussion, I thought I would throw in another NiCHE plug here for the Notes on Knowledge Mobilization blog that I edit. It covers a lot of these issues surrounding the future of the historical monograph, open access publishing, and copyright.

    You can read the blog and subscribe to its feed at:

    http://seankheraj.wordpress.com/knowmob/

    I would also encourage you to read Adam’s blog post about his open access book and print-on-demand publishing:

    http://adamcrymble.blogspot.com/2009/11/how-to-write-zotero-translator-print-on.html

  8. Jim

    http://niche-canada.org/node/8647
    New NiCHE book series with University of Calgary Press
    December 17, 2009 – 10:24 — AdamCrymble

    University of Calgary Press and NiCHE are happy to announce they are partnering to create a series of edited collections on Canadian environmental history / historical geography. Two features of the planned series stand out. First, NiCHE will commit funds both at the outset of the volume’s development to support a workshop bringing together invited and accepted contributors, and at the end to pay costs associated with enhanced production. And second, University of Calgary Press is adopting a publication model that incorporates free, open-access online publication simultaneous to print publication.

    The first book planned for the series is “A place for the people”: Canada’s National Parks, 1911-2011, edited by Claire Campbell. It is to appear in time for Parks Canada’s centennial as an agency in 2011.

    If you are interested in proposing a volume for the series, please contact niche@uwo.ca

Leave a Reply