ACLS
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Developed By Scholars

Steve Wheatley, retired Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), discusses the history of ACLS and more with HEB on the verge of the ACLS centennial campaign launching. 

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity. 


HEB: 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of ACLS’s founding and accordingly ACLS is preparing to embark on their centennial campaign to celebrate their work over the past century and continue building capacity for the future. What are the key functions and milestones of ACLS’s over the past century and during your time as Vice President now that you have had time to reflect in retirement? *Editor’s Note: Steve Wheatley spent 32 years at ACLS, including the past several years as Vice President until his retirement in 2018.

SW: ACLS advances the humanities by awarding fellowships and grants that allow scholarly creativity to flourish. More than 14,400 scholars received ACLS support in the past century. The creation of trusted peer-review mechanisms established democratic means of forging new knowledge. ACLS had no single “master-plan” for what the humanities should be. It did not direct from above, but built a structure through which new ideas could bubble up. 

ACLS has established scholarly journals, sponsored important scholarly reference works such as the American National Biography and exemplified the digital transformation through Humanities E-Book.

ACLS seeds and nurtures of new fields and methods of study. In 1919, the humanities largely focused on Western Europe and the ancient Mediterranean, with a side glance to our own country. ACLS helped move the study of other cultures and societies from the exotic periphery of scholarship to its forefront. Promoting China studies was one of the first ventures in the 1920s — in partnership with the Social Science Research Council—to a set of research-planning committees focused on all world areas. 

ACLS also plays an important role in the development of linguistics, the history of religions, musicology, and the history of ideas. This expands to exploring new methods of inquiry. For example, ACLS launched a committee on “computer-assisted research” in 1964 and continues to support digital scholarship today. Several of its programs promote collaborative research, often by transnational teams.

ACLS’s advocacy for the humanities helped win these fields a place in both: 1) a system of foundation funding that emerged in the 20th century with almost a singular focus on funding science and 2) in government funding— a commission created by ACLS and two other organizations was critical in convincing Congress and the Johnson Administration to create the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1965.  

ACLS pioneered modes of international academic exchange, especially with countries from which the US was politically estranged such as the USSR and Eastern bloc in the Cold War, and the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam before the establishment of diplomatic relations with both countries.

Because ACLS is committed to creation of new ideas, it facilitates the transmission of those ideas through the various modes of scholarly communication. ACLS has established scholarly journals, sponsored important scholarly reference works such as the American National Biography and exemplified the digital transformation through HEB.

Key developments during my time include:

  • Expansion of our capacity to award fellowships by creating endowment devoted exclusively to fellowships and increasing the breadth and depth or our foundation partnerships.
  • Creating new paradigms of empowering scholarship worldwide. Our programs in Africa and the former Soviet Union are not conventional academic exchange programs but efforts to build regional scholarly networks — proto-learned societies— that can provide leadership and support for the humanities independently.  For example, our partnership with the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowship program in Vietnam helped open study abroad to historically disadvantaged populations.
  • Intensification of work on the digital transformation. HEB is a part of this, along our Digital Innovation Fellowships and Digital Extension Grants. Our cyber-infrastructure report Our Cultural Commonwealth convinced the NEH to establish its Office of Digital Humanities.
  • Extending the reach of ACLS programs. The ACLS Public Fellows program brings scholars directly into government and non-profit organizations while new programs like the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships program focus on a vitally important (and under-served) sector of higher education.

HEB: ACLS is going through changes. On an organizational level, you recently retired and are soon to be joined in retirement by ACLS President Pauline Yu, while ACLS is expanding staff elsewhere. And although “business is good” at ACLS, there seem to be increased expectations to fund more fellowships and programs. What can scholars and stakeholders in the humanities expect from ACLS moving forward? 

SW: ACLS certainly should, and will, continue to support the very best scholarship.  Building the capacity (with the resources) to increase fellowship giving is important but there is now an emphasis on extending the reach of ACLS programs. What does “extending our reach” mean? It means making sure that teaching scholars and scholars outside the confines traditional higher education have an opportunity to participate in ACLS programs. This can take the form of a new program, for example the recently created Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships. But this can also take the form adjusting central fellowship programs so that scholars conducting research from not just the Ivy Leagues but from other institutions and backgrounds are included in these programs. 

Another area of extending the reach is the public engagement. Examples include the Public Fellows program and pushing for more humanities scholars in government and non-profit positions where their capacities are particularly valuable. Trying to bring humanities out of just the monograph and on to the op-ed page. Those are the directions ACLS is heading: increasing knowledge, extending the reach and building ACLS’s capacity is what the change is about.

HEB: Glad that you brought up a recent ACLS/Mellon venture, considering Humanities E-Book itself originated largely from Mellon funds and it provides a nice transition to ACLS’s role developing digital scholarship in the humanities (with support from Mellon). HEB is seeing more emphasis in our marketplace on digital collections in the humanities and new ways of accessing humanities scholarship. Do you attribute the emphasis on humanities in digital spaces to ACLS in any way? 

SW: Yeah, I think so! Obviously there are a lot of proponents for digital publishing in the humanities and using digital methods in new scholarship. But the fact is that ACLS, starting in 1964 and up to the late 1990s, vehemently pushed the potential of digital technology to transform how people read, write, how access information, in a very positive way. The move to digital was legitimized because ACLS, and others such as Mellon, had the respect of peers and an authoritative voice on such challenges. This was critical at a time where many thought any digital enterprise in the humanities were frivolous or dangerous. 

People were tentative during the transition to digital and didn’t know if it was permanent…

SW: Exactly! 

HEB: But with the increased competition for publishers and aggregators in the humanities (i.e. JSTOR, Project Muse, etc.) and quite frankly an expanded definition of what the humanities are in a digital world, it is clear this digital transition is permanent. I think about the HEB subject areas, where we have far more subject areas now than just history and the larger scope of the projects HEB is involved with, like the upcoming Oplontis volume.

I think you’re right, the richness of the content in the humanities has grown. Now suddenly people understand what it means to have an aggregate collection of books (as opposed to journals) and how that can be particularly valuable to an individual or institution, basically the value of a database of knowledge that people can access. The business models are still being worked out but you have seen the university presses come around to embrace the digital landscape.

But yeah, Oplontis is a great example. The project has such a scholarly and market value. Plus [laughing], what’s more ancient than Pompeii and then what’s more modern then taking all digital tools and looking at [Oplontis] in almost three dimensions yet with such incredible scholarly rigor? It’s just phenomenal what they have done and their work is clearly more accessible via HEB than it would be if it sat on a shelf.