You wouldn’t have known it from the Twitter feed over the past few days, but a steady undercurrent of the conference conversation among public historians in Milwaukee has been the situation with the field’s flagship journal, The Public Historian, and NCPH’s announcement in January that it would be terminating its more than 30-year relationship with the University of California at Santa Barbara, its partner in publishing the journal. Noting that recent negotiations with UCSB had not led to what the organization’s leadership considered a viable arrangement to continue the status quo, NCPH stated its intention of relocating its publication activities to the east coast and embarking on a new partnership involving American University’s Public History Program and the Smithsonian Institution. The initial announcement noted the hope that The Public Historian would remain the name of this new venture, but that negotiations with UCSB were continuing on that front.
The response within the public history community has been strong and sharply divided. Some have seen NCPH’s new plans as a rash move that threatens to split the professional energies and personal loyalties of a relatively small and quite close-knit organization and field. Others have welcomed the proposed shift as a changing of the guard in the profession after an extraordinarily long run of our signature journal at the same institution. Many have been on the fence, waiting to see how the UCSB/NCPH discussions pan out. Although as an NCPH board member during the run-up to this situation I was aware of the many reasons why those confidential discussions couldn’t be held in a more open way, I’m also sympathetic to the viewpoint that this crucial decision for the field deserved more transparency and consultation.
All of this has made for an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable subtext to the Milwaukee conference. So it was no surprise that this afternoon’s membership forum on the journal was a much-anticipated and well-attended session, with more than a hundred people gathering to raise questions and hear from the organization’s leadership. NCPH Executive Director John Dichtl, outgoing and incoming board Presidents Marty Blatt and Bob Weyeneth, and Public Historian editor Randy Bergstrom responded to concerns from the audience, after giving a brief overview of some of the backstory to the January announcement.
Noting that this was “a fast-breaking story,” Weyeneth started things off with the latest update, which is that NCPH and UCSB had agreed yesterday to a two-year timeline (still to be ratified by the two organizations) to extend the negotiations and explore various options for the future of the journal: continuing the partnership, adding additional partners, or going separate ways in a better-prepared and–it is to be hoped–more amicable transition. While dissolving the relationship is still a possibility, Bergstrom noted that this option actually allows the partners “to be venturesome”–that is, to look beyond the status quo in a number of directions.
Questions from the audience were wide-ranging and forward-looking, and the session generated what felt to me like a generally positive and hopeful sense that good things could come out of what has begun as a difficult conversation. Attendees asked questions about the actual sticking-points of the past negotiations, the financial side of the NCPH/UCSB partnership and the NCPH investment in a new journal, the ways that NCPH members are currently using The Public Historian, the process by which the partners and stakeholders will work out the questions that remain on the table, what kinds of “best practices” we might learn from the editorial and structural arrangements of other journals, and how digital publication might fit into the “journal for the 21st century” that NCPH is hoping to foster, among other things.
I took two main things away from the session. First, as John Dichtl noted, it’s now possible to talk openly about these issues and arrangements, which is infinitely more productive than having to talk around them as has been largely necessary until now. And that feels good.
And second, NCPH’s interest in really pushing for newer forms of public history scholarship, particularly in the digital realm, seemed confirmed by my reading of the Twitter feed during the session. It lit up around points relating to more open-access content, questions about the usefulness of the traditional journal format for newer practitioners, and the Press Forward initiative that we have been exploring with the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, reflecting the grasp that Twitter-savvy public historians have of the possibilities that exist in these new media. Laura Feller commented that she feels old when people talk about “new media,” but that she recognizes the importance of these realms for those who are increasingly stepping into the profession and the organization. John Dichtl followed up on this with a comment that I really liked: he noted that there are lots of great ways that we can cross-pollinate between the journal, this blog, and NCPH’s various other publications, but that we’re not sure yet what’s in “the space in between”–that’s what remains to be discovered. And that feels good, too.
~ Cathy Stanton