AHA Encourages History Departments to Provide Full Library Access to Alumni and to Unaffiliated Historians in their RegionsHistorians in the News
tags: AHA, academia
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. Becky Nicolaides is a councilor for the AHA Research Division. She tweets @BeckyNic7.
Access to research materials—both print and digital—is crucial for any historian engaged in scholarship and teaching. For historians working outside of well-resourced colleges and universities, gaining access to these materials has become increasingly difficult, particularly with the increasing breadth and depth of commercial databases often accessible only to scholars affiliated with a well-resourced university.
This trend is an often-overlooked aspect of the changing landscape of historical research. More and more research material has been digitized by commercial database companies, who then control its dissemination. These firms rely on institution-to-institution contracts with large, well-funded university libraries. Historians working within these universities have full access, while those on the outside are excluded, placing them at a severe disadvantage in their ability to produce first-rate scholarship and excel as teachers. For a complex set of reasons, providers rarely offer individual subscriptions to scholarly databases. At the same time, contracts with vendors often make it difficult (or even impossible) for libraries to grant access to individuals outside these institutions. These structural barriers create difficult challenges for many historians.
The AHA’s 2017 survey on this issue captured the breadth of the problem. Unequal access affects historians working in a wide variety of contexts, including full-time faculty at institutions unable to afford subscriptions, part-time and irregularly employed historians, independent scholars, job candidates, and historians employed outside of higher education. Faculty with inadequate access cannot keep up with the latest scholarship for teaching and have circumscribed access to the primary sources that enliven a classroom and stand at the center of highly regarded history pedagogy. This is not only a matter of academic careers or the pursuit of what we customarily refer to as “producing new knowledge”; it is also a matter of equity in higher education. Unequal access for faculty means unequal educational opportunity for students.
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