Old favourite in the melting pot

Past and Present
October 24, 2003

The four issues of Past and Present published in 2002 carry a red band recording the journal's 50th anniversary. They are fatter than the issues that started the journal half a century earlier, but the colour and the format are the same. The journal was started in 1953 by a group of mostly young historians, several of them members of the British Communist Party, initially without the support of a university or any other press. It has survived and become one of the world's leading historical journals, published these days by Oxford University Press. It reaches its half century at a time when university libraries are closing their current periodicals rooms and when the whole future and status of academic journals seems to be in the melting pot. It will be interesting to see whether even a journal with such a strong personality and readership will survive the reformulations that technology is producing in academic publishing.

In considering the journal, I should perhaps declare an interest. I was aware of the plans for its publication some years before it appeared, I have subscribed since the first issue and my husband, E. P.

Thompson, was a member of the editorial board from 1969 until his death in 1993. I have not contributed myself, although I have read scripts and helped to obtain contributions. During Past and Present's 50 years, our household subscribed to six or seven historical journals and the current periodicals room was a regular port of call during my years as a university lecturer. Past and Present was the one journal that was almost invariably read from cover to cover and the one that was most eagerly awaited. For me it stood out in a period of unparalleled richness in historical writing in Britain.

In its half century, Past and Present has had six editors, including the two who now share the position. The founding editor was John Morris with Eric Hobsbawm as his assistant -the only surviving member of the first editorial board; Trevor Aston edited the journal for the quarter of a century from 1960 to 1985; Paul Slack took over from him until 1994; and Joanna Innes took the reins for the rest of the 20th century. The present post-holders, Chris Wickham and Lyndal Roper, continue the practice of joint editorship. The work of the editors has always been a vital part of the nature of the journal, but there has never been a strong editorial presence in the publication itself. The journal does not carry editorials except in unusual circumstances -the first issue and one of the 50th-anniversary issues. At other times the flavour of the journal represents the whole of the editorial board -a board that meets and corresponds more often and more regularly than that of most academic publications.

In their brief editorial contribution, " Past and Present after fifty years" in the August 2002 issue, the current editors look back at the early issues and see continuity with the aims of the founders. Although several of the most active founders were members of the British Communist Party, the journal was never intended as a vehicle for the expression of one approach to the discipline of historical study. It was a plea for a widening of some approaches and for the rejection of the static and non-historical scholarship that was developing in some of the social sciences. It is interesting that the great flowering of social and cultural history, which has characterised the past half century, is often now praised for having taken account of social sciences other than economics -for having recognised the contribution to historical studies of sociology, anthropology, social geography and other social and indeed natural sciences. In fact much of it -including, for example, Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and many of the most important articles in Past and Present - was written in opposition to the influence of static and mechanical forms of contemporary sociology and anthropology.

The 50th-anniversary issue that contains the editorial statement also carries an obituary of one of the founders, Rodney Hilton. Hilton contributed to the first number, as did Hobsbawm. Hilton's piece on "Capitalism - what's in a name?" and Hobsbawm's "The machine breakers" are still essential items on modern reading lists. Both writers have been major voices in British history writing, as have many of the other editorial board members and contributors. Still in its anniversary year, the articles are written and presented in a form that makes them interesting not only to specialist academics but to any serious reader.

There have been changes over the years. The editors see a move away from "social" to more "cultural" themes. But Past and Present has been important not so much for breaching the boundaries between history and the social sciences as for breaking down barriers within the discipline of history itself. The editors view with some concern the current suspicion of historical theory: "At a moment when the role of theories seems to be under attack and old paradigms are giving way, it may be important to reaffirm, with the journal's founders, that there can be no history without ideas."

The point is well taken, but those of us who were students when Past and Present started were in revolt against ideas without history -courses in "the history of ideas" or "political philosophy" that were being taught in an entirely uncontextual way and have left legacies of theories that profess to stand outside history. It has been one of the great strengths of the journal that it has always resisted purely "theoretical" argument and has indeed abided by the criteria set out in its first issue: "Articles which merely bring the results of a piece of detailed research whose interest is narrowly restricted will not normally be published; nor, on the other hand, those which deal with wider historical problems without a firm foundation of scholarly research."

Students today seem to be less likely to read journals than their predecessors. The internet is a source of guidance and information and, of course, most journals, including Past and Present , are available there. A lot of rubbish is also available, and in any case on-screen reading or even printed-off pieces are very different from handling a journal. One has, however, only to read the footnotes to the articles in the anniversary year of Past and Present to see how massively the writing of history in the field covered has increased during the past 50 years. In Marius Kwint's fascinating study of the legitimisation of the circus in late Georgian England in the first issue of 2002 - to take an example at random - the great majority of the many secondary sources in the notes date from the last quarter of the 20th century. They are far too extensive to go on undergraduate reading lists and yet he does not cite recherché or unconnected works.

It seems that the increase in number and narrowing in specialisation of academic journals in all disciplines would have produced some kind of crisis even without the impact of the internet. The tendency to award points for quantity rather than quality of published material has made many journals of less interest to students, let alone to non-specialist readers.

Natural scientists are discussing a move to establish a "public library of science" containing only reputable peer-reviewed material, which will be accessible online without payment or any other form of restricted access.

The contributors will pay to be on the screen and the students will have protection from unreliable sources. This may well be the only possible direction for scholarship to take, although its application to the arts and humanities would be rather more complicated.

Such a programme would presumably see the end of academic journals in their present form, and it may well be an inevitable end. Yet, the popularity of what are in many cases serious and well-researched history programmes on radio and television could mean that a journal such as Past and Present , with its house style and rules that have always made it readable by the serious non-specialist, could survive in paper as well as online form. It is a handy size, rather like a paperback book, and it really is useful to be able to stick a bookmark into articles to reserve them for later reading. Those of us who still like to turn pages and to read studies outside our area of specialist expertise congratulate Past and Present on its half century and look forward to reading it for as long as possible.

Dorothy Thompson is fellow, Institute for Advanced Research in the Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.

Past and Present: Fiftieth Anniversary Year

Editor - C. Wickham and L. Roper
Publisher - Oxford University Press, quarterly
Price - Institutions £109.00 (Online only £99.00) Individuals £39.00
ISSN - 0031 46 (Online ISSN 1477 464X)

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