Society for Historical Archaeology: enter the 21st century, please

Posted by on Jun 15, 2009 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 6 Comments

My major professional organization is the Society for Historical Archaeology. I have been a member for three years, and have attended a couple of conferences in that time. I also use the journal Historical Archaeology extensively. SHA has, most recently, been making a major push to become a much larger organization, recognizing that its field, although part of archaeology and anthropology, provides a unique perspective and engages a number of unique audiences within the Academic, Museum, and Cultural Resource Management fields. It also recognizes, and has for a long time, that it can provide important information for anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, geographers, and other fields…much of the literature in Historical Archaeology has recognized these overlaps. So this begs the question: Why must you be a member of SHA in order to gain access to Historical Archaeology online? I understand the importance of maintaining membership. Part of being a member of a professional organization is receiving the journal. This is important. It is critical that you continue to be up-to-date regarding your field: what new research is happening, what methods are being used, what theoretical approaches are being adopted. It is important for teaching, it is important for your research, it is important if you want to remain a relevant contributor to your field. And that is all well and good, when you are talking about issues happening within your own field. Membership is also important because along with membership comes money. The organization needs funds to support the journal, to hold the conferences, and to support important programming. This is necessary. SHA has decided that restricting the back issues to members only is a way to maintain membership. If it was more open, and available through something like JSTOR, why would people continue to remain a member of SHA? Well, there are a variety of reasons why putting Historical Archaeology on something such as JSTOR is important, and beneficial to SHA. In fact, I will argue here, it probably would increase rather than decrease membership.

  1. Electronic media such as JSTOR is the new library. In fact, it’s not even new anymore. Every academic in Social Science is using JSTOR. It’s the first place I turn when I’m doing research. Important journals are at JSTOR. Access is purchased through college libraries. Visiting and searching JSTOR is better than going to the library and fishing through the periodicals. It will search the articles for you. Find things on topics you want. And it is accessible to anyone who is affiliated or can get into an University. (I’m using JSTOR as an example here…more open the better, as far as I am concerned, but baby steps are okay for starters).
  2. SHA straddles many disciplines. So making the journal accessible through JSTOR means that if a non-SHA historian is doing a research project on Slavery in Georgia, and he visits the SHA website, he is SOL. He can’t find an article. Odds are good, he won’t even visit the SHA website in the first place; not that many historians use archaeology. However, if he decides to run a search at JSTOR, and SHA is on JSTOR, then a variety of articles about the archaeology of slavery in Georgia will show up, and he might say to himself, “wow, this is some good stuff about my topic. I should include this”. And then, someone outside of SHA has used SHA articles. The relevancy of Historical Archaeology expands. We touch academic groups that we need to reach.
  3. Being more accessible will increase membership. SHA does not have any problem recruiting membership from historical archaeologists. It is part of our job to belong to our professional organization. The trick, however, is to make the organization relevant to other fields. If you consider our historian above, there is a reasonable possibility that he may find the journal so helpful that he wants to receive it all the time, in order to stay consistently up to date. Maybe he found the work so useful that he may be able to present a paper at a conference. Perhaps he will mention it to a colleague. This will increase the membership.

It is possible that some people will drop their memberships because the journal will be free to access. This is a chance that you need to be willing to take. However, it should be noted that if that happens, then the organization itself probably isn’t doing a good job of making its other resources and functions appear relevant or important, and that is worth investigating. And really, keeping the journal to ourselves seems a little elitist and exclusionary. It makes researching the backlogs difficult (the online journal browser is not very user friendly) and it does not encourage people from outside the field to use our journal. And this is a crying shame, since it works in the face of something we have been trying to do for a long time: prove and maintain our relevancy as a separate and viable discipline. In 1988, Robert Schuyler stated that  the next step for historical archaeology is to join “with general scholarship via descriptive, interpretive contributions”. By making our publications not only relevant (which was his argument) but widely available, we will be able to engage with other areas of academic study, thereby broadening and deepening everyone’s understanding of the past.

Schuyler, Robert 1988       Archaeological Remains, Documents, and Anthropology: A Call for a New Culture History, Historical Archaeology, 22:1.

  • well, Jstor isn’t really open access…it’s open access to people at universities. while i do think it makes sense to have HA available on JStor, I don’t think it really solves the problem in terms of getting information out to the public.

  • well, Jstor isn’t really open access…it’s open access to people at universities. while i do think it makes sense to have HA available on JStor, I don’t think it really solves the problem in terms of getting information out to the public.

    • you’re right…describing it as open access is probably not entirely accurate. I was using JSTOR as an example of one direction. Either way, it’s far more available than the current situation.

  • you’re right…describing it as open access is probably not entirely accurate. I was using JSTOR as an example of one direction. Either way, it’s far more available than the current situation.

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