What can H-Net tell us about Scholar-Managed Publishing and Communications?

Emily Joan Elliott's picture

A post from Feeding the Elephant: A Forum for Scholarly Communications.

Over the course of H-Net’s nearly thirty year history, it has grown from a group of listservs dedicated to specific themes and geographic areas of study in the humanities and social sciences to the H-Net Commons, a website with hundreds individual pages where networks can share announcements, publish reviews, generate discussions, host digital humanities projects, and more.

When envisioning what H-Net might look like in 1992, founder Richard Jensen of the University of Illinois Chicago imagined that H-Net would both train scholars on how to use new computer technologies and serve as a means of sharing resources related to teaching and research. He also hoped that H-Net would be a space for sharing electronic texts and tips for using them.

According to a profile of H-Net, published in 1995 in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, the organization had grown quickly, consisting of approximately 50 networks and 19,000 scholars logging in from 59 countries at three years old. The author, Steven A. Leibo, then an editor for H-Asia, noted that scholars from North America and Europe made up the bulk of H-Net’s subscribers, but over the course of the past three decades, H-Net’s subscriber-base is truly an international one. The networks to which Leibo referred — H-Asia, H-Albion, H-LatAm, H-Italy, and H-Amstdy — still exist today, pointing to the longevity and success of H-Net’s work.

Since its early days, H-Net has grown in its geographical reach to incorporate subscribers and editors from around the world. In a reflection on the first 10 years of H-Net’s work, then-Executive Director Mark Lawrence Kornbluh and Vice President for Networks Peter Knupfer noted the growth of networks and subscribers as well as who was taking advantage of H-Net: “largely …younger, pre-professional or marginalized scholars and teachers for whom conventional means of reaching their peers through publication and conference participation were unavailable or extremely hard to use.”

By 2003, when Kornbluh and Knupfer delivered their report, they also highlighted two important new additions to H-Net: the H-Net Job Guide and H-Net Reviews. The job guide is considered one of the most comprehensive and most affordable for the institutions publishing new positions. Since its inception in 1993, H-Net Reviews has published reviews of 48,000 books (nearly 900 thus far in 2022) on geographical fields spanning the globe and countless thematic issues. H-Net has set itself apart from reviews found in journals thanks to the quicker turnaround permitted with digital publishing and self-sufficient reviews programs. Additionally, H-Net reviews are open access, and its mission and website setup allow for engagement with and responses to reviews.

H-Net’s decade of growth, Kornbluh and Knupfer contended, meant H-Net was no longer “revolutionaries banging open the doors of the academe, but rather one of the main means by which the academe communicates and publishes.”

In the years since then, H-Net has grown to include approximately 200,000 subscribers to the nearly 200 unique networks that exist on the H-Net Commons. What did that growth look like and what can it tell us about the development of scholar-owned communications and publishing infrastructure and the digital humanities?

H-Net has resided at Michigan State University since 1994, but it is legally an independent nonprofit, governed by the H-Net Council, a group of 17 elected members and officers who set policies and establish goals for the organization’s future. Just as in the 1990s, volunteers — now numbering in the hundreds — keep H-Net’s networks and review programs running, and a Home Office staff provides support to these volunteers. The senior staff of the Home Office includes an executive director (currently interim), associate director of networks, associate director of research and publications, and a system administrator. In addition, about four to six undergraduate student employees keep operations running by addressing questions sent to the help desk, maintaining H-Net’s social media presence, and mailing out books for our reviews program. 

In 2013, H-Net rolled out the H-Net Commons, which allowed for a host of new projects, organized by the H-Net Home Office staff and network and reviews editors. The Commons also hosts the Book Channel, which is home to Feeding the Elephant. Through the Book Channel, scholars can view recently published monograph titles by subject area. H-Net is also the publisher of the open access Journal of Festive Studies and approved a new 2022 publication to be sponsored by H-CivWar on international encounters related to the U.S. Civil War. With the Commons, H-Net also launched H-Podcast, where several scholars have begun to produce their own podcasts. This network also hosts an index of podcasts that may be of interest to scholars and reviews podcasts. Individual networks have also built and published digital humanities projects on the Commons, including digital libraries, author interviews, historical timelines, and more.

H-Net continues to pursue new methods of engaging scholars from around the world. In summer 2022, it held its virtual conference about pedagogy and the hurdles that K-12 and higher ed educators face, sponsored by H-Teach. In 2023, H-Net will also introduce an updated version of the Commons that will be mobile friendly and is currently in the preliminary phases of gathering feedback to inform a revamp of our Reviews Management System, as updates to that system and the job guide will follow.

H-Net is a nonprofit and offers all its services for free, but like all nonprofits, it incurs costs for these services. H-Net purchases and maintains servers and software, pays its staff, and ships books to reviewers, among other costs. Historically, the Job Guide has generated most of H-Net’s revenue to cover these costs, but it is subject to the whims of the academic job market. During the early days of the pandemic, universities limited, if not completely halted, hiring, but that has since changed. Since taking charge, Interim Executive Director Jesse Draper has also increased the donations that H-Net receives. In June, H-Net held a new recurring donor drive.

Although H-Net is a successful academic nonprofit, it is not immune to the issues that many nonprofits face. Since its Home Office staff relies on undergraduate students, turnover can be an issue as students graduate or find other employment. Like all US-based nonprofits, H-Net also must abide by rules and regulations to remain in good standing. Its Council must meet regularly, and it must keep the IRS informed of its finances even though the organization does not owe taxes.

In the meantime, the H-Net staff is still here and happy to support scholars launch projects that range from forums like Feeding the Elephant to DH projects to robust publication programs.

A special thanks to H-Net’s Interim Executive Director Jesse Draper, Systems Administrator Dennis Boone, and Associate Director of Networks Christine Peffer for their feedback and assistance.

Have something to say on this topic? Reply to this post! Or email the Elephant about writing for us. We welcome submissions from stakeholders on all sides of scholarly publishing. Find us on Twitter @HNetBookChannel and use the hashtag #FeedingTheElephant.