I’ve just returned from the 2009 meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Seattle, Washington. In an effort to be more bloggy in my blogging, rather than write a single, long post about the OAH, I’m going to write three shorter ones.
Before heading out to Seattle, I e-mailed the other folks involved in USIH in the hopes of gathering to discuss the state of our subfield, plot world domination, or at least have a few beers. To my surprise, not a single other member of our collective was planning to attend.
Now, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I haven’t exactly been an OAH annual meeting regular myself. The Organization of American Historians is the professional organization for historians of the United States (not to be confused with the American Historical Association, the professional organization for historians in the United States).* Though I’ve been a member of the OAH for about two decades, I’ve only attended about half a dozen OAH meetings, the last in 2003 in Memphis.
But this year’s meeting was unusually sparsely attended, with only 1,800 registrants, significantly lower than was expected (lower even than the 1,900 who showed up at the 2007 meeting in the more bicoastally out-of-the-way Minneapolis). And the main culprit appears to be the economy. Indeed, the entire meeting was shadowed by our current economic woes, as Rick Shenkman reported on HNN. C-SPAN wanted to cover the convention, but couldn’t afford to send a crew. The book exhibit was half empty and reported poor sales. Even the OAH business meeting was clouded by economic woes:
Officials reported that the organization’s endowment is down some 30 percent. Contributions are down 40 percent. Income from the exhibitors was down $38,000, though this loss was offset by strong receipts from corporate sponsors. As it usually does, the annual convention is netting a substantial profit, some $95,000, but that’s lower than is usual.
The OAH is not expecting to lose money this year, but there are fears that things may get worse before they get better. Most troubling is that these economic worries come in the midst of a longer-term downturn in professional association memberships. The OAH had 9,300 members last year. This year it has 8,750.
And this gets me to the point of this first OAH post: in our changing information, professional, and economic environment, what does the future hold for professional organizations like the OAH? Despite my poor attendance at OAH meetings past, I’ve always enjoyed these conferences. Significantly smaller, more focused, and less haunted by the job market than the AHA, the OAH tends to offer a much higher percentage of interesting panels and opportunities to exchange ideas. And yet it’s a large enough conference that, as at the AHA, one bumps into people with whom one has fallen out of touch. As an intellectual and cultural historian who works on the post-New Deal U.S., I really haven’t had a smaller subfield conference to attend for most of my career, so the OAH is particularly nice.**
But it’s not clear to me that such an organization will matter enough to enough historians to remain vibrant in the future. As such meetings get smaller, the costs of attending will likely rise while the intellectual value will likely decrease, both of which will, in turn, further drive down attendance.
Before turning to my (very positive, as you’ll see) intellectual experiences at this year’s OAH, then, let me open with a series of questions, especially directed at the U.S. historians among our readership: Do you find the OAH annual meeting–or mid-size conferences like it–to be valuable? Why or why not? And what, if anything, would we lose if we didn’t have an organization (and an annual conference) dedicated to covering all of American history?
* I’m sure most readers of this blog are aware of this fact…but we might as well flatter ourselves and assume that there are some non-historians reading this.
** Historians of the West and the South have the Western and the Southern. Historians of the antebellum period have SHEAR. Diplomatic historians have SHAFR. One of the reasons I started blogging here is that I so appreciated last year’s inaugural USIH conference–which I didn’t help plan–and wanted to get involved in this effort to create some professional infrastructure for at least one of my subfields.