Friday, November 15, 2013

What's a professional society for?

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.


Sapience said...

Seriously! RSA has been the least useful of my scholarly associations for precisely the reasons you express, but the EEBO subscription is a lifesaver -- I just lost my subscription via my old graduate institution two weeks ago, and was already feeling the loss (my current institution would never even consider getting it). EEBO makes the RSA annual fee totally worth it, and I wouldn't even feel bad requiring students to pay $35 a year for the student membership just to get access if I wanted to do a class around early modern book history.

Flavia said...


Ooh. I hadn't even considered having students become members; I was vaguely wondering whether it would be safe to let them use my login (i.e., whether they'd be able to do any damage as "me" on the website). But that's a really smart idea, assuming EEBO will form a major part of the class--and as long as the physical texts for the class aren't too expensive.

Susan said...

I joined RSA for the conference -- as I have a few times before -- but will indeed renew for the sake of all those who receive access to EEBO this way.

My little organization gives us access to a few databases at much reduced rates, and it's a real gift.

Contingent Cassandra said...

What an excellent idea! For organizations with progressive dues structures (which I think includes most), this is also a very substantial way to help contingent faculty, and/or people who may choose *not* to work for adjunct wages (which can, at least, in some cases, bring library privileges; that's the one reason I can imagine working for part-time wages again) continue their research.

Withywindle said...

That is really nifty. Thank you for blogging about this.

EngLitProf said...

Thank you for publicizing this important topic, Flavia. I’m particularly glad you mention how you have been relying upon your friends; for the past seven years a friend of mine who teaches part-time at a major research university has been letting me use her password. Thanks to her, I have had Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, the Times Digital Archive, and other expensive resources that are absolutely necessary for my research.

Historiann said...

Thanks for letting us know--I'll consider joining up, as this is an incredible service to humanists!

undine said...

This is awesome. Getting access to databases, especially expensive ones like EEBO, is the big unspoken equity issue in the room, since the big guns tend to think that they are as available as tap water and don't see the problem. Good for RSA for making this available!

Dr. Virago said...

Dude! This is major! Thanks to you, the RSA has a new member (me!), since I work across the medieval-renaissance divide and occasionally need access to EEBO. In the past I've only ever used it on research trips to major libraries, because Rust Belt sure as hell can't afford it (or won't pay for it -- same diff).

Thank you so much for posting this!

Anonymous said...

Wow! This makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Flavia said...

I'm glad to see RSA getting the love! They deserve it on this.

I should note--as someone who unexpectedly wound up having to use EEBO for about twelve hours this weekend--that the RSA subscription is not yet full-text searchable: EEBO has gradually been transcribing all 125,000-odd of those documents so that one can search for key words and phrases within all those millions of pages. The transcription process is not yet complete, and at the moment that portion of the subscription is even more expensive than regular-EEBO. But the RSA reports that they expect to make it available to members over the next year or so once the transcription project is compete and has been fully integrated into EEBO.

So, short version: I started out using my RSA EEBO subscription, but since I'm now in the late, needle-in-a-haystack phase of a project (i.e., responding to readers' reports dubious about whether people could REALLY HAVE KNOWN about this thing my argument depends on), I had to switch over to my pirated subscription, which includes access to the ongoing transcription project.

(And in fact, I found what I needed--which just proves how far along the transcription project has come in the past few years: I ran these exact same search strings 2-3 years ago and found nothing. It'll be amazing once it's complete. EEBO, I love you.)

i said...

I love me some EEBO. (Little known fact about me: as an undergrad, I won the EEBO essay contest. A few years later wound up speaking at a TCP contest on loving EEBO. Yay, EEBO!)

I actually just joined the RSA for the first time, since I'm in the conference next year speaking across the medieval/renaissance divide. I was a bit shocked by the price, to be honest. But then I got the email later, and I have to agree, that's really great. One of the things that has upset me about one of the more exciting projects in my field, the Parker Library online, has been the ridiculous expense, and the thought that some scholars might not even get access to the MSS anymore since they're digitised. It's actually cheaper to fly someone to Cambridge for a research trip than to buy the Parker database.

Will you be at the RSA, Flavia? Can I convince you to imbibe a cocktail with me?

Flavia said...

i: yes! Would love to see you. Let's email closer to the date, but I should be in town for the whole conference, plus a few extra days.

i said...

Wunderbar! Even better if you tell me you're in Chicago for the MLA, because I really will be all alone there. And since I'm off of facebook, it's not so easy to quiz everyone about whether they're going.

Flavia said...

i: Yes again--on a panel organized by one of your colleagues, in fact!

(I'm presenting at four conferences in four months in what I'm calling my self-financed book tour.)

It'll be great to see you after such a while.