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Author: David J. Staley
Title: The AAHC: a Visionary Organization
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
May 2005

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Source: The AAHC: a Visionary Organization
David J. Staley

vol. 8, no. 1, May 2005
Article Type: Editorial

The AAHC: a Visionary Organization

David J. Staley

Executive Director, AAHC

At its recently concluded annual meeting, the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC) made two critical choices. First we decided that next year's annual meeting would be organized as a “virtual conference,” the first completely on-line academic conference for historians. On-line conferences are becoming increasingly commonplace in the corporate world and in some academic associations, but this would be the first history conference held asynchronously and on-line. The AAHC have long been at the technological forefront, and hosting this conference continues in that tradition of leading the rest of the historical profession.

Second, the AAHC decided to begin work on a statement of values regarding digital resources, electronic preservation, and intellectual property. This statement of values will be not unlike our Guidelines for Tenure and Promotion. Here is a sample from our first draft:

  • We will think about the social consequences of the programs we write, the system(s) we design, the lectures we give, or the messages we send.
  • We will use computers to help make ideas and opinions available, while keeping the integrity of the factual information available.
  • We will honor the intellectual property rights of historians' work, in whatever format it is produced.
  • We will not use other people's computer resources without authorization or proper consent. We will give proper credit to all individuals.
  • We will provide accurate and easily accessible data.
  • We will acknowledge and support proper and authoritative uses of an organization's computing and communication resources.
  • We will act in a manner that is fair and consistent with the laws of all countries, especially those laws relating to the use of intellectual property and copyrighted materials.
  • We value multimedia, not just text, as both a primary source and as a way to present scholarship and represent the past.

Like our guidelines for tenure and promotion, we intend for our statement of values to serve as a model for other organizations in their efforts to wrestle with the questions of digital access and preservation.

As part of the discussion about our statement of values, the moderator, Deborah Andersen, asked the group to look at and consider these words, which can be found on the AAHC website: “The American Association for History and Computing (AAHC) is dedicated to the reasonable and productive marriage of history and computer technology…” Deborah asked the group if this statement constituted our mission statement, whether or not we were happy with it as currently formed, and whether or not we should alter it or even eliminate it.

Apparently, my body language and facial expressions gave away my answer.

The above words are not merely a mission statement. The mission statement was a popular management tool (some would say a management fad) in the mid to late 1990s, and is not as widely heralded anymore (in many cases, this is because cynics noted that the mission statement of most companies could usually be boiled down to three words: “increase shareholder value”). No, the above words are not a mission statement; a mission statement is a declaration of what an organization will do, and what organizations do changes through time. These words are, rather, a statement of the AAHC's “core ideology”: an enduring declaration of who we are and who we will continue to be.

The thought leaders James Collins and Jerry Porras note in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies that visionary companies are those that have a clearly developed core ideology, which in their words “defines the enduring character of an organization—its self identity that remains consistent through time and transcends product/market life cycles, technological breakthroughs, management fads, and individual leaders.” Visionary companies, those that thrive over time, are those with a well-defined and well-maintained core ideology. The core ideology is, in effect, the “deep structure” of the organization, giving form and shape to whatever strategies, whatever decisions, whatever mission statements may come and go.

Collins and Porras were describing a core ideology as it pertains to business, but I believe the concept can be applied to any organization, and especially to the AAHC. “The reasonable and productive marriage of history and computer technology…” was the core ideology articulated by our founders over a decade ago, and this ideology remains in place today. The technologies that draw our attention now are different than the ones even 10 years ago: back then, we were concerned with databases and with how historians might use the Internet. Today, we are interested in exploring video games and virtual reality, geographic information systems, and ways of preserving our digital records. The specific areas that draw the interest of our members will surely change, especially given the rapid changes in technology. Few people were thinking in terms of on-line conferences 10 years ago, and we were only then beginning to digitize documents, let alone thinking through value statements about such efforts. And 10 years from now there will surely be new as-of-yet-developed technologies that will draw our attention. Our core ideology, however, can not change.

Ultimately, a core ideology is a simple statement of an organization's reason for being, a statement of its purpose. Adherence to our core ideology means that the AAHC is committed to playing a leading role in exploring new technologies for historical research, teaching, preservation, scholarship and public presentation. This core ideology defined the AAHC over a decade ago, and it will remain as our deep structure and guiding principle for the next decade, and beyond.