OAH Finances Take a Slide and Convention Attracts Fewer Attendees

Historians in the News

Money was on peoples' minds at this year's OAH in addition to history. Eating cheap was on the menu for many. One sign of the times. C-SPAN, nearing the end of its fiscal year, wanted to cover the convention but couldn't afford to send a crew.*

Some 1800 people registered for this year's OAH annual meeting in Seattle, a lower number than would normally be expected for a convention on the West coast. (In 2007 1900 showed up for the out-of-the way Minneapolis convention.) There wasn't any mystery for the lower turnout. The recession has hit many historians hard as schools either cut positions or cut their travel budgets (or both).

Exhibitors complained that sales were extremely slow. Gallows humor was prevalent. One editor confided to HNN that she was upset when on Saturday her colleague succeeded in making a sale--the only sale of the day. It broke their chance to establish a record.

At the OAH Business Meeting there was further grim news. Officials reported that the organization's endowment is down some 30 percent. Contributions are down 40 percent. Income from the exhibitors was down $38,000, though this loss was offset by strong receipts from corporate sponsors. As it usually does, the annual convention is netting a substantial profit, some $95,000, but that's lower than is usual.

Last year to help put the organization on a sounder financial footing the OAH substantially increased membership fees. Officials say it is too early to say if the increases will result in more revenue as has happened in the past when fees were raised. One reason for the less than confident outlook: membership numbers are falling. Officials report that like other scholarly organizations the OAH is finding it difficult to attract and keep young members. The membership last year: 9,300. This year: 8,750.

While officials are projecting the OAH will end the year in the black they are preparing for hard times ahead. They are budgeting for just 1800 attendees at next year's conference in Washington DC, which normally would draw a huge crowd.

Members of the executive board are working on a Strategic Plan to address long-term challenges facing the OAH. A key goal of the plan is turning the OAH into a big tent for all people who work in American history: public historians, teachers, as well as scholars. In addition, planners want the OAH to exploit fully digital media. The plan was debuted at the conference. It will be voted on by the board in November. Officials say they welcome input from members.

*C-SPAN did send its bus. It dominated one end of the book exhibit.

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More Comments:

HNN - 4/9/2009

Hi Oscar,

The membership is getting older. That's the bad news the OAH has to confront.


Oscar Chamberlain - 3/31/2009

OAH finances deserve attention, but I would hate for that to obscure the fact that this was an excellent conference. The quality of the panels that I went to was first rate, and there were many more that I would have attended but could not because of conflicts. I don't claim to have made a representative sampling, but everyone I asked about the sessions felt the same.

One other thing: it seemed to me that the crowd was a bit younger than in past years. Maybe that simply means that I'm getting older, but it would be interesting to know the age breakdown of the people who attended this year and to compare that with previous years. If it was a bit younger that would be a small piece of good news for the OAH leaders.