In commemoration of Joanne Lafler

Margaret DeLacy Discussion


I am devastated to be sharing the news of the sudden death of my colleague, co-conspirator, and friend,  Joanne Lafler,, one of the founders of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars and a founding editor of H-Scholar.

Joanne, Georgia Wright and I met together at a conference called by the San Diego Independent Scholars in 1986. Joanne and Georgia were both members of the Institute for HIstorical Study in the San Francisco bay area.  I came down from Portland, Oregon. A  Chicago librarian, James Bennett, had been circulating a xeroxed newsletter among a handful of local independent scholars' groups, had announced that he was discontinuing it and the SDIS had decided to call a meeting to discuss ways to continue it. 

 At the conference, the three of us advocated not only for establishing a national newsletter but also--to the surprise of the others in the room--for creating a new national organization.  We encountered a lot of skepticism about whether such an organization would ever prove viable.  Nevertheless, Georgia agreed to edit the new newsletter, The Independent Scholar, and produced its maiden issue in 1987.  Meanwhile, I developed a rough sketch for a new organization which we conceived as an umbrella organization, a "coalition" of the scholars' groups that met locally.  The first elections took place in 1988.  Joanne was elected to the founding board of the new National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) together with Barbara Bell, Gloria Erlich, Joy Frieman, Karen Smith, and Nancy Zumwalt.  Barbara, who is still on the H-Scholar advisory board, offered to convene the first meeting of the new organization in New York in 1989.   I ducked out on the grounds that I had young children at home and it was difficult to travel.  My third child was born that year.

At that meeting, Barbara was elected president and Joanne became the Secretary-treasurer.  She became President herself in 1992, just 30 years ago, and for many years she also produced the NCIS members' directory.  She was already a very active member of the Institute for Historical Study in the San Francisco Bay area and she also served as president for the IHS. 

In 1996, we began to discuss an application to H-Net for our own network. At that time, email was still relatively new, many people were using dial-up services, and AOL was just gathering steam. After our application was approved, it opened for subscriptions as H-Scholar at the end of in 1997.  Joanne, Barbara, and I were the founding editors together with Diane Calabrese who bravely became the first editor to complete the H-Net editorial training and post to the new list. Joanne continued as editor until she turned 80 in 2014 and then became an advisor and frequent contributor.  Her final post to H-Scholar was published on January 3rd, 2023.  As she often did, she complimented a post from a current editor, Sandra Ham. 

Joanne and I met occasionally, especially when we served together on the NCIS board, but we corresponded much more frequently, often exchanging several emails a day.  In addition to discussions about NCIS activities during the years when we were both serving on the board, we had many discussions about the internal policies of H-Scholar and our role within H-Net.

In the early years, H-Scholar required much more editorial intervention and judgement than it does now.  The list editors received an email of the day's announcements and select just the ones that were relevant to their list.  As the membership of H-Scholar crossed nearly every academic discipline, we usually published all the announcements on the list. In those days, H-Net was email only, so the H-Scholar archive may be the most comprehensive list of the early academic announcements that were "published" by H-Net online.  However, questionable announcements often slid through to our in-box. These were either not of scholarly interest (such as a children's Easter Egg roll at an historic house) or were downright fraudulent, luring scholars to "conferences" that took place in someone's bedroom, or "journals" that would publish anything at all for a fee.  When the acting editors came across these, or simply announcements that fell into a gray area, they would send a query to the other editors with the question "should I post this." A discussion would ensue about whether or not the announcement was likely to be of interest/use to working scholars.  We rarely disagreed, but these discussions became an ongoing dialogue about what made a given project, conference, or event, truly scholarly. Joanne always had a definite opinion but I can't recall a single time when we failed to reach a constructive consensus. Equally important, I knew that whenever I contacted her, I could rely on her to respond constructively.

Joanne continued to pursue her own research interests throughout her life.  She had a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from the University of California at Berkeley and was an expert on the eighteenth-century stage.  She wrote that she had not become an independent scholar by choice--she had enjoyed teaching and regretted the circumstances that made it impossible for her, like so many other well-qualified scholars in those years, to find permanent academic positions. She published one book, The Celebrated Mrs. Oldfield: the Life and Art of an Augustan Actress," and several articles on eighteenth-century actresses and the role of women in the early modern theater.

More recently, she has been researching the life of her husband's father, Henry Anderson  Lafler, a member of the Bohemian Club, and a man at the center of the San Francisco literary community in the early twentieth century.  Retracing a bicycle trip he took to the Northwest brought Joanne up to Portland for a very pleasant visit.

The most recent issue of the Institute for Historical Study newsletter (42, no. 3, winter 2023), includes a short article by Joanne about Henry Lafler's friend Jack London: "What's in a Name? Jack London and Racism."  I wrote Joanne when it arrived that I was looking forward to reading it, which I finally did earlier this month--I am sorry that I will never be able now to tell her I enjoyed it.

Her husband, John Lafler, shared the news of her death with me.

Without Joanne's hard work and unfailing support for other independent scholars, you would not be reading this message today. 

Margaret DeLacy, acting as subscriber

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I am very sorry to learn this news about Joanne Lafler.
Many years (decades?) ago, Joanne was the keynote speaker at the awards dinner of the Western Association of Women Historians. Her presentation focused on independent scholars, and she talked about the founding of NCIS. My response was pretty much, "Where can I sign up?" I've been a member ever since. Her work on behalf of independent scholars has had a huge positive impact on a once marginalized segment of the scholarly community.

Margaret's obituary is so well recollected!...
I share her encomium on Joanne's hard organizational work during all the years' journey from the Institute for Historical Study in California to the formation of the National Coalition for Independent Scholars, to H-Scholar, which has now networked independents internationally. Joanne knew the value of institutions, what they can do if built and maintained properly, on the basis of mutually-agreed principles and procedures, friendship, respect.
A lot has changed in the world of both academic scholars and independents alike since early days in the 1980s, but Joanne's own professionalism as a scholar, along with her constant thoughtful advice for and engagement with independent scholars didn't change, nor will her example change, even now, in the memories of those who knew her.
Our thanks to you for your goodwill, Joanne...always...
Barbara Bell