Historians are people of the book. We write piles of them—monographs, textbooks, and edited books, strictly academic books and books intended (usually with no foundation in reality) for the bestseller list. Some of our better books are histories of the book; some of our better historians are historians of the book. We cherish books dearly, not least for their narrative artistry. But we also value their utility within the academic world. At research universities and colleges with research aspirations, after all, the scholarly book serves as the elusive ticket to the vastly overrated world of the tenured, Associate Professor, and later to invitations to speak, comment, and publish still more books.
It’s probably safe to say that, as a profession, we are agreed that a series of significant journal articles or book chapters may substitute for “the Book” when it comes to things like tenure and promotion. Harvard probably won’t grant you tenure for such an achievement—to be honest, Harvard won’t grant you tenure under any circumstances—but other research-oriented institutions probably will. Still, “the Book” rules in nearly every history department at every institution that aspires to climb the U.S. News rankings. “How’s your book coming along?” is the haunting refrain that echoes in the corridors of the Marriotts and Grand Hyatts at convention time.
It’s no revelation that different criteria prevail in disciplines such as medicine, engineering, business mathematics, and the natural sciences. For scholars in these fields, books often connote “textbooks” and are therefore of little interest to serious scholars. What matters is journal publication—and not just in any old venue. Hits in so-called A-list journals are coveted. Even in the social sciences and some of the humanities, junior faculty are expected to produce journal articles and book chapters, but nothing in codex with a single author’s name on it.
In short, historians are producing, recognizing, and even celebrating work that runs sharply against the grain of research in other disciplines. To put it in the bluntest terms, we have a Book Standard; they have a Journal Standard. It’s not that we don’t value that other form of scholarly currency. We just don’t value it quite as much.
Nonetheless, the advantages of the Journal Standard to university administrators and trustees who are seeking both transparency and higher, measurable rates of faculty research production is almost self-evident. Journals are ranked according to clear-cut categories, typically from A to C. An article in an A-list journal can be treated like another A-list journal. That isn’t the case with books. To this point, blessedly, we haven’t had to bother with such lists. The unfortunate consequence is that a book’s “impact” may now be more difficult to demonstrate.
Of course, we know that Harvard, Yale, Chicago University Press, etc. are selective and prestigious publishers. But do we know anything more than that? And, if we don’t, aren’t we, the authors of such books, liable to inflate their value? That is certainly the conclusion that an administrator or trustee, especially one trained outside the humanities and the humanistic social sciences, might draw. Even humanists could be tempted by such heretical logic.
We might look upon the situation as analogous to that faced by the United States in the late nineteenth century. To pay for the massive buildup of forces in the Civil War, the federal government issued paper “greenbacks,” which were not directly convertible to specie (gold or silver, etc.). The unsurprising result was inflation. In an attempt to limit price increases, currency fluctuations, and speculation, the United States, along with much of the industrializing West, moved to a Gold Standard.
It’s not hard to see the current evaluation regime in universities as equivalent to a return to the Gold Standard following a massive expansion in scholarly output (we could likewise imagine our books as the equivalent of silver coinage and our relatively balanced treatment of both books and journal articles as something akin to of bimetallism). To historians, of course, books are golden. But that’s not necessarily how the rest of the university will see them in the future, or even now. Moreover, if administrators and scholars in other fields have clear metrics for gauging the impact of non-historical work and ranking their non-historical outlets and we do not, we may find ourselves at a severe disadvantage in the quest for scarce research resources. We may also hurt the very scholarly form that we claim to prize too much to defend in instrumental terms.
Here’s the payoff: To save scholarly historical books and the sustained research efforts that they represent, we may need to think hard about the impact (I won’t quibble now about the use of that term) of such books. That might mean doing things that are unpalatable to humanists, like going beyond the perennial questions asked by promotion and tenure committees (e.g. How many journal articles does it take to equal one scholarly monograph?) and consider ranking book publishers across all fields of history and within them. We might need to find some weighted measure of reviews (determined partially by the journals in which they appear), as well as working to track and recognize citations made many years after publication. We could also tighten up the peer review process, attempt to account for the influence of subventions, and properly credit books that only appear online. In other words, to ensure that our work is fairly judged and equally valued, and to save these often beautiful, extended works of scholarship that we call “books” (whose covers are still adorned with old paintings and sharp modern designs) we may have to set aside our reservations and occasionally treat them as nothing more than well recognized and secure mediums of scholarly exchange.