For the first time in three years, the KNHG was represented again at the annual congress of our sister organization the American Historical Association (AHA). Following its cancellation in 2021 and a modest and partially hybrid congress in 2022, this major historical gathering was once again organized as an in-person event in Philadelphia in January 2023. KNHG Director Antia Wiersma travelled to this historic city, where she masked up while participating in this congress. In this section she describes her impressions of the ambience and shares her experiences.
Like in all American cities, high rises dominate the cityscape. Still, Philadelphia is different from average and may be one of the cities with the most pronounced historical aura in the United States. This is because it was here that the founders of the American republic proclaimed independence and drafted the Constitution in 1776. Americans cherish this legacy. Independence Hall and what is known as the Liberty Bell are important landmarks for every American to visit. This legacy imbued the congress as well. At a hands-on-session under the aegis of KNHG board member Inger Leemans, representatives of the Odeuropa project on scents and smells presented the scent especially designed for this congress (see below).
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That business was still not as usual was clear in part from the urgent appeal by the organization to wear face masks in all congress areas, in both the common spaces and in the conference rooms. This precaution was by no means excessive, as a new subvariant of the Omicron virus is going around in the United States. Little is known yet as to how serious or contagious this variant is. This variant now accounts for 28 percent of the infections throughout the United States, and in Philadelphia, according to the local news station, this rate is already 45 percent. Ample reason to observe all necessary precautions, including wearing face masks.
Another indicator was turnout, which was lower than in the last year preceding the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic. Fewer than 3,000 historians had come to Philadelphia, whereas there were over 4,300 participants at the one in New York in 2020. Nonetheless, it felt just like old times, with many interesting sessions and a large information fair, where many publishers tried to interest historians in their recent publications.
At each Annual Meeting the AHA organizes a breakfast for publishers and (managing) editors of historical journals. Since most substantive sessions started at 8:30 AM, this breakfast meant an early start of the day. As I am an early riser and had jet lag as well, this was obviously not a problem for me.
The breakfast always includes various discussion tables. Like every year, one of the tables at this edition was devoted to open access. I was struck by the dearth of knowledge that persists about this subject among American journals. That lack of knowledge, combined with a fear of the unknown, causes most journals to adopt a dismissive and defensive position. This has led the KNHG, together with Martin Burke from the Conference of Historical Journals, to update and resubmit the proposal for the Annual Meeting from 2021 on open access for the gathering next year.
A great many sessions I attended related to the future of the discipline in some way. In the United States the number of history masters students is dwindling noticeably. In addition, universities are concerned at the decline in enrolments by female students and by students from ethnic minority groups, such as Afro Americans, Latinos and those of Asian descent. Especially this last group is seriously underrepresented, the main reason being that they opt to study natural sciences or medicine.
Another aspect of academia that is a subject of debate is the tenure track system that is applied at many universities and determines whether academic staff have permanent appointments. As many historians holding PhD degrees are excluded from this system, American universities now increasingly highlight employment prospects outside academia. Moreover, a different way of assessing academic achievements is being explored, albeit very cautiously. Americans might benefit from considering the Dutch perspective, where discussion about recognition and appreciation has been ongoing for a while, and professional opportunities for historians highlighted from the KNHG perspective. This would require, however, extending their horizons beyond their national borders. Some assistance from the Dutch in this effort could be useful.
Before boarding my flight to the United States, I sent a tweet, in which I mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing familiar faces and to making new friends for the KNHG. After all, in addition to learning about largely organizational developments, that is the essence for the KNHG of the Annual Meeting. Of course many substantive sessions interest me as well, but they are largely secondary. This year the congress was once again a very satisfying experience. In addition to renewing acquaintances and restoring ties with the AHA and the Conference of History Journals, I spoke extensively with representatives from the bureau and the chair of the British Royal Historical Society. This will certainly lead to wonderful endeavours, and you will be learning more about these in the coming months and years.
Antia Wiersma, KNHG director