I belong to a half-dozen professional organizations, and if you'd have asked me why, last week I'd have said something vague about their advocacy for scholars and the importance of paying it forward. But yesterday the Renaissance Society of America showed me what a professional organization can actually do for its members and how it might respond creatively to inequities in the academy--even those over which it has no immediate control. Effective immediately, the RSA is offering free access to Early English Books Online to all its members.
To understand the significance of that move, you have to understand, first, that EEBO is the single most important database for those of us who work with printed texts published in England (or published abroad for the English market) from 1475 to 1700. EEBO is a collection of complete facsimile images for 125,000 different books. It is, in essence, an online rare books library, but also a fully-searchable one: it's now possible to run searches to see, for example, how often and in what context a particular historical figure gets mentioned in print over the course of a given decade. Equally as importantly, it's made extremely rare books--some of which survive in only a single copy--available anywhere in the world to anyone with a subscription. There are still many reasons we need rare books libraries and physical books, but EEBO makes everything a hundred times easier, whether it's something as trivial as double-checking the page numbers for a quotation or as significant as comparing two books held in different locations.
Or rather--EEBO makes everything a hundred times easier for those who have access to it. Because the second thing to know about EEBO is that subscriptions are prohibitively expensive. Most research universities subscribe, but the majority of colleges and universities do not (and subscriptions are not available to independent scholars or other private citizens). Several years ago RU looked into the possibility of getting a joint subscription with several other masters-granting universities, but as I recall our portion alone would have run somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000-$30,000.
So most of us don't have legitimate access to EEBO, though pirated subscriptions are relatively common; in the seven and a half years that I've been at RU, I've had access, at one point or another, through three different friends' university accounts. My conscience doesn't twinge much about that, but since I'd never give someone else's login to a student, I can't use it in the classroom or incorporate it into research assignments. That's a huge loss.
Enter RSA. A few months ago they sent around a survey asking how much we'd be willing to pay per year for access to EEBO--on top of our membership dues--if the organization could get a good group rate. I filled out the survey, but didn't expect much to happen; the price points they mentioned were high, and I told them frankly that although I'd prefer to be an ethical user, since pirated access was so readily available I probably wouldn't be willing to pay more than an additional $50.
Then I forgot about it until yesterday, when I got an email informing me that, as a result of the survey and their internal research, the RSA had concluded that EEBO was so vital it should be funded out of the organization's endowment and be free to all members.
Let me be honest here: I'd never previously given much of a shit about RSA. I always paid my dues because I have a good job and because I believe in being a good citizen, but I could never muster up much enthusiasm for the organization. It's a huge umbrella society whose members come from a range of disciplines and work in at least a half-dozen languages on material that spans nearly 500 years; its conferences are thus even less targeted toward my interests than the MLA. (I have more in common with a James Joyce scholar than I do with someone who works on Florentine numismatics or Dutch landscape paintings.) It's the smaller professional societies that I've cared about the most: the ones getting by on a shoestring budget, the ones whose founding members are still alive, the ones I feel need me, and need younger scholars, and are working toward goals I share.
But the RSA has really impressed me with this. I'm not surprised to learn that a major organization can wield more clout than a smaller one, but I am surprised to find that it can be just as driven by and just as responsive to its members' needs. According to the email I received, this new benefit is the direct result of a single member's query about whether a group subscription to EEBO might be possible--and in the same email, the RSA urged us to keep bringing forward ideas about other resources or benefits they might investigate making available to all.
It's easy to think that the big professional societies are hidebound, slow-moving beasts that are irrelevant to the lives of most scholars, existing chiefly to confirm the importance of those who've already arrived. But the RSA has proved that professional organizations can be vital and relevant even to the most junior and the most professionally marginalized people in the field, those who need to see some benefit if they're going to shell out $50 or $75 or $100 a year. My hat's off to them.
So if you're an Early Modernist, please think about joining or renewing your RSA membership. And if you're an academic in another field or discipline, talk to your own professional societies about what they're doing to provide equal access to whichever resources you consider most crucial, whether those be databases or conference travel funds for grad students and contingent faculty.
Sometimes, apparently, all it takes is asking.