New Connections for Scholars:
The Changing Missions of a Learned Society
in an Era of Digital Networks
Douglas C. Bennett
American Council of Learned Societies
What are the missions of a learned society in an era of digital networks?
At the American Council of Learned Societies, we believe the
technologies of digital networks will plow up and replant the worlds
of scholarship and education. We believe these technologies can serve
us well if we take care in making the transition to using them. But we
also believe they may do great damage if we are inattentive or timid or
simply dazzled by the technology. Helping to make the transition to
digital networks in the humanities and social sciences is one of our
main concerns at the ACLS.
For a gathering in November , we asked the executive directors
of the 56 learned societies that then belonged to the ACLS to prepare
brief essays on what they perceived to be the mission of their learned
society in an electronic age. My remarks are informed by this collection of
essays and our subsequent discussion of them, but the views expressed are
In brief course I want to argue the following. The new technology
will allow long-standing missions of learned societies to be performed
in new ways, but the missions of learned societies are also likely to
be altered. There are significant changes afoot in the world of
scholarship and higher education involving internationalization,
interdisciplinarity, and interactive learning. Learned societies are unusually
well-positioned to use the new technology to contribute to these changes.
The History and Missions of Learned SocietiesThirteen learned societies joined together in 1919 to create the
American Council of Learned Societies. Today we have 58 member societies
and the number continues to grow. Our purpose is the "advancement
of humanistic studies in all fields of learning in the humanities and
social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among
the national societies devoted to such studies."
The characteristics of learned societies today are best seen by
contrasting them with what preceded modern learned societies. Learned
societies formed before the Civil War were:
- gatherings across a range of professions of all learned people;
- focused on the full breadth of specific fields of knowledge.
Many of these early learned societies had meeting halls; many also
had cabinets or collections of valuable objects. Though quite
transformed today, three of these earliest learned societies are members of ACLS.
The American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, founded 1743) and
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Boston, 1780) are
now prestigious honorary societies whose reach is not just national
but international. The American Antiquarian Society (Worcester, 1812)
also has only honorary members, but today is principally a major
independent research library.
Modern learned societies, by contrast are:
- networks of scholars and educators;
- with professional interests in a single field or discipline.
A large number of learned societies were founded between the Civil
War and World War I. Founded during this period were (among
others) virtually all of those in the disciplines included among the
standard humanities and social science departments of colleges and
universities. The learned societies founded after World War I add several
additional fields, most notably those concerned with the arts as well as
interdisciplinary concerns with particular areas of the world or with
particular centuries or eras.
We can categorize the functions of modern learned societies
as principally these four:
Identity. Learned societies provide identity in a double sense:
the existence of a learned society gives formal recognition to a field of
study. At the same time, scholars acquire an individual professional identity
as members of the field by belonging to one or more learned societies.
Informal communication. Second, learned societies organize
informal scholarly communication in their field of study: they provide a setting
for conversations among scholars across the country. Annual
meetings are a principal mechanism for this informal communication, but
hardly the only one.
Scholarly publication. Most learned societies publish a journal.
Although other journals in the same field may be published by
commercial or not-for-profit publishers, typically learned societies publish the
oldest and most prestigious journal in their field, often the one broadest
Professional services. Finally, most learned societies have come
to provide an array of professional services for their members. For
example they create directories of members, provide job listing services,
and publish guides to graduate study in their field.
A Context of Disconnection
In all these missions, learned societies establish and maintain
connections: connections among scholars across a large number of
institutions, and connections between these scholars and a broad array of
resources for research, teaching, and other professional activities. This is
particularly worth noting here because the context within which scholars
work is characterized much less by connection than by fragmentation
and separation. In this context of disconnection, learned societies are
an unusual countervailing institution.
It is one of the glories of the American system of higher education
that colleges and universities are separate from one another; even
public institutions in the same state are rarely more than loosely
coordinated. This separateness allows for initiative and for responsiveness to
local needs or concerns, but it also prevents benefits that can only be
provided by individuals or institutions working together.
Moreover, this separateness ramifies throughout the academy.
Within colleges and universities, departments function largely independently
of one another both in their educational programs and in their
research activities. Even courses within institutions are largely separate
domains, with professors rarely aware of what others are doing. Libraries
at individual colleges and universities collect separately to meet the
needs of their faculty and students. One other obvious but remarkable
aspect of this "context of disconnection" bears mention: the sharp
separation of scholars from the general public.
U.S. higher education is struggling with this disconnectedness on
a number of fronts. Many colleges and universities have been
exploring ways of overcoming the fragmentation of their education into
separate programs and separate courses through core curricula and
other integrated programs. Faculty in separate departments and disciplines
are being linked through interdisciplinary programs. Libraries are
increasingly trying to share resources with one another via interlibrary loan
and cooperative collection agreements. Universities are exploring ways
of building stronger bridges to their surrounding communities.
Both because they are important and because they are issues
where learned societies may make unusual contributions, I want to
make particular if brief mention of three other ways in which the worlds
of scholarship and higher education are striving to achieve greater
Internationalization. In many fields, we can see efforts to move
beyond insular or parochial intellectual perspectives that over-focus on
experiences within the United States or the experiences of dominant
groups. Drawing on this and also reinforcing it are efforts to"internationalize
Interdisciplinarity. In virtually every field of learning one can see
a striving for greater discourse across traditional disciplinary
boundaries. Scholars in one field are drawing on perspectives and methods from
a range of other fields (e.g., literature scholars interested in images
and ways of analyzing images), and hybrid multidisciplinary fields
Interactive learning and scholarship.
A third change is a move towards more interactive and collaborative strategies of teaching and learning.
Lectures are being supplanted by approaches that expect more
active effort by students or ask them to work in groups. This change
is paralleled by new styles of scholarship involving greater collaboration.
The Changing Roles of Learned Societies in a Digital Age
A common denominator in these three frontier issues is that they
involve new, richer, or more extended ways of making connections.
Internationalization, interdisciplinarity, and interactive learning are changes
working their way through the academy.
It is important to note that these aspirations for connectedness
arise independently of the technology of digital networks, but in this
new technology we have fresh, powerful means for making and
strengthening connections of all kinds. And learned societies are unusually
well positioned to make effective use of this technology on behalf of
The possibilities are significant enough that each of the core
functions of a learned society is likely to undergo significant change. We
can organize consideration of these changes under the same headings
we used earlier for the missions of learned societies. Taken
together, however, the changes involve a significant refocusing of mission; we
are unlikely simply to see the same activities performed by new means.
Identity. The new technology will surely hasten the transformation
of learned societies from national to international organizations. This is
the clearest change in the function of learned societies to shape
scholarly identities. Digital networks allow learned societies to stay in touch
with, to connect and to serve members across the globe.
Informal communication. The new technology will also
reshape scholarly identities by refashioning informal scholarly
communication into more plural interdisciplinary channels. Learned societies
have traditionally organized informal scholarly communication within
their individual fields through annual meetings, sub-field sections,
and newsletters. These means also inhibited cross-field
communication, however, by confining scholarly communication to those who attend
a society's annual meeting or subscribe to particular newsletters.
While digital networks provide new means for organizing such
within-field informal communication, they also provide powerful means for fostering
informal communication across fields and disciplines. Listservs can
be created that draw subscribers from several scholarly fields;
participants can learn of new publications and work in progress in several
different disciplines. Scholars need not confine themselves to one or
two established networks in which to participate, but rather can tailor
their sources of information and networks of colleagues to suit their
particular and evolving interests. Scholarly identities may become much
more varied as a consequence.
One other important potential change in informal
communication should also be noted: the technology of digital networks could be
used to allow more extensive and effective communication between
scholars and non-scholars, between experts and a variety of publics.
Learned societies might tailor access to scholarly resources for journalists,
policy-makers, organizational leaders, and others with an interest in
knowledge. I believe it is too early to say whether learned societies will
take advantage of this potential, which might have very far
reaching implications for the relationship between the academy and the world.
Scholarly publication. Digital networks will make possible
electronic journals: this is probably the most frequently noted implication of
the new technology for learned societies. Electronic journals promise
faster and better access to new scholarship, and electronic journals are
likely to be different in form from print journals in important ways. While
none of the learned societies that belong to ACLS have yet begun
publishing an electronic journal, several are already beginning the transition,
and virtually all are exploring how they may do this.
As important as the coming of electronic journals will be, the
technology makes possible a more momentous change in the role of
learned societies with regard to formal scholarly publication.
They may now validate and organize scholarly resources in their fields.
Generally, learned societies publish the lead journal in their
field; occasionally they publish more than one, but seldom more than two
or three. In many fields, other publishers (university presses,
commercial publishers) have come to establish additional journals. The
journals published by learned societies commonly provide the most
extensive array of book reviews in the field. In a few cases (but only a few),
learned societies produce abstracts or bibliographies of works in their
field. Rarely does the role of a learned society in scholarly publication
go beyond this at the present time.
As digital networks become more central to scholarly
communication, scholars are increasingly facing a torrent of electronically
accessible resources, many of unknown provenance or quality. The challenge
and the opportunity for learned societies is to assess the quality of
these resources through peer review, to provide these assessments to
scholars in the field, and to organize access to the full range of validated
materials in an easily navigated, intellectually thoughtful manner.
Learned societies do not have to publish everything in their field
to validate and organize what is available. The new technology
allows anyone to design an organizing lattice and provide pointers to
resources published by others. Learned societies are best situated to perform
this role because they are best able to organize the peer review process
by which resources should be assessed.
In performing this new role, a learned society would likely draw
current and potential members more closely to it as a critical site of
orientation for them. This prospect provides an important incentive to take on
this new role. By the same token, if learned societies do not validate
and organize scholarly resources in their fields, some other entity will fill
this needa library, a university department, a publisher, a
self-identified group of individuals. That "other entity" could become such a key
point of reference for scholars in the field that it would begin to supplant
the learned society as what defines the field for its practitioners.
Professional services. Many of the professional services now provided
by learned societies can and likely will be provided in the future
in electronic form. It will be possible to join or renew membership,
post or search job listings, search membership directories, or order
handbooks and other publications online. Again, these are
important, inevitable, but, I believe, ordinary changes made possible by
the technology of digital networks.
In the area of professional services, the extraordinary possibility
for change lies in how learned societies may become more deeply
involved in serving their members as teachers, both in colleges and
universities and in K-12 settings. Much more effectively than ever before,
learned societies can provide searchable archives of syllabi and other
teaching materials; they can also consider participating in the design of
interactive teaching resources. The professional and pre-professional
networks which learned societies constitute could become a key context
for interactive learning. These networks could become vital
educational settings beyond the classroom or the campus.
The strength of the new technology is that it allows connections to
be easily made. This can also be a source of problems, however:
connections that can be made quickly can be made poorly or foolishly. A
vital role of learned societies is to see that the technology is used well
for purposes of education and scholarship. Among the issues that need
to be addressed in assuring optimal usage are these:
Quality and integrity. If a scholar or student finds a text on a World
Wide Web site, can s/he be confident that the text is accurate and
complete? If there is more than one variant or edition, can s/he know which
one is being provided? The scholarly world has developed strategies
for assurance of quality that are rooted in peer review. How can these
be carried over into the digital world?
Common formats and
standards. Over many decades, the scholarly world has worked out formats and standards for print resources
that facilitate their use. Title pages, indexes, footnotes: these and
many related features allow scholars to have common bearings in an
intellectual world. Only some of these can have direct analogues in the
digital world; how will we find our bearings in a digital world?
Preservation. If a scholar provides a citation to a book or article
provided online, can s/he be sure that a reader can follow the citation to
the source? Beyond the reliability of the site or pathway, can s/he be
sure the cited work will be available in some form for the foreseeable
future? How will we assure the long-term preservation of digital resources?
Intellectual property. Copyright law involves carefully devised
balances between the rights of proprietors and the rights of users. These
balances establish the rewards that flow to those who create or disseminate
new intellectual or creative works, and also establish the terms of access
for those who make use of them. Many aspects of the current balance
rest upon particular features of the print world; a new scheme is
being devised for digital networks. What will be the balance, the rewards
and the terms of access, that govern scholarship and education in this
Academic freedom. Finally, we need to be concerned with
how academic freedom can be protected in this new setting. To a
certain degree, the separation of colleges and universities from wider
publics has made it easier to sustain a greater degree of freedom for the
expression of ideas in scholarly circles. As the new technology
makes it easy for anyone to gain access to scholarly conversations, we
can expect renewed challenges to the ideals of academic freedom.
These are not issues for learned societies to address alone. They
concern all who participate in the symbiotic relationships of scholarly
communication: libraries, primary and secondary publishers, colleges
and universities as well as scholars and scholarly societies. They are
also issues that learned societies could choose to ignore over the past
few decades because they involve arrangements of long standing in the
print worldarrangements worked out before many learned societies
had even been formed. In a world of digital networks, however, all
these issues must be addressed again. And in addressing them again, it
is important that learned societiesas the organized voices of
scholarly communitiesbe centrally involved.
Roles for the American Council of Learned Societies
Learned societies are unusually well positioned to help the world
of scholarship and education embrace digital, networked
technology. Their role has always involved making connections across
institutions and distances. This technology now provides them with powerful
new means to forge connections across borders and disciplines as well.
The American Council of Learned Societies was created to help
learned societies in the humanities and social sciences work together
more effectively, and to pursue their common interests and those of
the scholars they represent. In the transition to using digital,
networked technology, ACLS will focus on the following tasks:
First, we will help the learned societies incorporate digital,
networked technology into their regular activities. We will help them find the
best way to use this technology in publishing journals and
newsletters, renewing memberships, registering participants for annual
meetings, and providing services to members. We will also help our
learned societies explore ways of working together in these activities, both
to develop common approaches and to help reduce the investments
in infrastructure they will have to incur.
Second, we will work on developing mechanisms for providing
access for scholars, teachers and students to scholarly and educational
resources via digital networks. Many of our member learned societies
have created World Wide Web sites (or gophers), and more are following suit
each month. ACLS has created a website of its own
providing pointers to all of these.
If it is a role for each learned society to validate and organize
scholarly resources in its field, ACLS has an important function in linking
these resources and providing gateways for access. In partnership with
Vassar College and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), ACLS
is developing the American Arts and Letters Network,
an experimental, quality-filtered website providing access to
scholarly resources identified through a peer review process. The AALN site
also has a sophisticated search engine by which scholars, teachers
and students can locate appropriate resources.
Third, more broadly, we will work with others to construct a
digital environment that provides access to all cultural resources in
networked form. With two dozen other not-for-profit
organizationsrepresenting museums, libraries, archives, schools, colleges and
universitieswe recently created the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural
Heritage (NINCH). NINCH, which also maintains a website,
will provide a forum for working out common
concerns, for mounting key projects, and for cooperating with parallel efforts
in other countries.
Fourth, in helping to provide access to resources in the arts,
humanities and social sciences, we will work to keep a steady focus on how
these digital networked resources can be provided with reliable quality
and integrity; how common formats, gateways, and standards can
be developed; how the preservation of digital resources over the long
term can be assured; how the balances between the rights of users and
of providers under copyright law can be protected; and how
academic freedom can be respected.
Finally, we will help settle the new technology into the
professional mores of scholarly communities. Providing access to a wealth
of resources will not be enough, even if these resources are provided
well. Use of digital resources cannot simply be the preserve of scholars
who work to one side of the mainstream in their fields. And digital
resources will not be well provided if they are nothing more than simple
analogues of print resources. The technology opens the door to new strategies
of inquiry, new modes for scholarly communication, and new options
for teaching and learning which should find their way into the
central activities of scholarly communities.
This text was originally presented at the Annual Meeting
of the Center for Research Libraries, April 19, 1996.