JSTOR is Not Our Friend; or, What Should a New Public History Journal Look Like?

[Update 5/10/2012] : NCPH Executive Director John Dichtl stopped by to offer some corrections to this post in the comments. Thank you John for setting the record straight.]

The big news at this year's meeting of the National Council on Public History was that the organization has come to a parting of ways with UC-Santa Barbara, the publisher of the Public Historian. Those interested can trawl through the archives for H-Public for details, but the short version is that the two organizations could not come to terms, and that the copyright for the journal apparently belongs to the university and they intend to keep it. So the NCPH is looking to start a new journal for its members. The conference public forum discussion are summarized in this blog post by Cathy Stanton, The Elephant in the Room.
Scene from NCPH via Flickr user David Blackwell

The necessity of starting a new journal provides a fantastic opportunity to rethink what a scholarly journal can be in the 21st century. My thoughts:
  • Whatever else we decide, it is vital that the new journal be open access. Currently the Public Historian is really only readable by members of the organization. Back issues are online but behind a JSTOR paywall and accessible only by folks with an academic affiliation. The NCPH gets some money from JSTOR for this arrangement (I don't know how much, but I guess in the low tens of thousands?). 
  • Whatever the benefits we get from closed access and a partnership with JSTOR, the costs are both huge and largely unrecognized. Every year, JSTOR turns away 150 MILLION attempts to read journal articles! Imagine the lost relevance when our articles cannot be read, blogged, tweeted, sent over Facebook, assigned in public school classrooms, accessed by poor working and amateur public historians in the thousands of tiny museums, archives, and historical societies. JSTOR is not our friend.
  • Also, refusing this opportunity to become open access will alienate many of the younger and more tech savvy members of the NCPH. A lot of us are increasingly uncomfortable with donating our labor in writing and reviewing articles for the benefit of a huge publishing industry that locks our knowledge away.
  • The objections to open access are misguided. One concern I have heard from NCPH leadership is that people join the organization specifically to get the journal. I think this is unlikely. People join for the conference, the networking, and the affiliation. 
  • At the same time, we must continue a print journal. We must not underestimate the attachment folks have to print. A university library of my acquaintance is pitching a bunch of never-read back issues of journals that are already on JSTOR to make space. Many of the professors there seem to think that this is the equivalent of the burning of the library at Alexandria. Whatever we do, a print journal for members has to come out of it.
  •  The new journal should not be like the old one. As much as I have learned from the Public Historian over the years, the real elephant in the room is that the journal's content has always been uneven. The conventions of the academic article are simply alien to what many public historians actually do. There are not enough good public history articles in the academic style to support two journals.
  • What I would like to see? A magazine-format journal that is open-access and publishes a range of items from semi-academic articles to interviews with public historians (I could use those in the classroom!), visits to institutions where public history happens ("behind the scenes" articles at Colonial Williamsburg, the Buffalo Bill Historic Center, the CHNM, the Smithsonian, Gettysburg, etc.), reviews, and who knows. Everything would be available online and for free, but a print version would go out to members unless they opted out. Could it also be distributed through bookstores, etc?
  • Our model for new NCPH journal could be the Atlantic magazine. Four years ago the Atlantic retooled with an "internet first" strategy. It put all of its content, including back issues, online for free, added blogs, interviews, and other web-only features, and used all of these to promote subscriptions and newsstand purchases. The result: increased print sales and profitability in an era when all its competitors are declining. We can do this!
 I am also interested to hear your thoughts--what should a new NCPH journal look like? Please comment.