Rumours of a death that may be true

December 10, 1999

If the monograph is dying, then it is for commercial rather than academic reasons. "Monograph" may have dusty connotations - implying, perhaps, a narrow focus on a subject of little interest except to a handful of specialists - but it should be much more. It is a study of a person, event or process, based on primary research, using documents from archives or libraries. It should also offer a synthesis of current historical thinking, placing its subject in a wider context. A monograph is the distillation of years of thought and research that does not stand in isolation from other types of work.

Some argue the place for this kind of research publication should be academic journals. Indeed, authors could be accused of self-indulgence in wanting to inflict book-length specialist studies on the reading public. But while journals are important, more space is often needed to present arguments and evidence than the 8,000 or so words allotted to the average journal article. Learned journals are also less physically accessible than monographs to students and other readers. Few libraries, even in universities, can afford to subscribe to all the relevant scholarly journals. While this may change with increasing use of electronic media, as yet it remains an issue.

Publishers today seem to favour works of synthesis - that is, textbooks and general surveys - over scholarly monographs. While these do contain original research, they draw heavily on more specialised works of scholarship, such as the monograph, so as to present an introduction or overview of the subject. If you kill the monograph, what happens to the textbook?

I was once told by an editor that publishers believe there is no such thing as the general reader or intelligent layman. It also seems to be the belief that the chief buyers of academic books - students - are interested only in buying textbooks that will take them through an entire course. While there are many fine textbooks and general surveys on the market, most students realise it is undesirable to rely on them exclusively. A monograph conveys more detailed knowledge and more detailed argument and reasoning. As for the non-existence of the general reader, this is disproved by the success of a number of recent monographs - to mention only four: Diarmaid MacCulloch's Thomas Cranmer, A Life; Amanda Vickery's The Gentleman's Daughter; Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; and Antony Beevor's Stalingrad. The last is still among the top ten best-sellers in paperback non-fiction, despite the more Christmassy fare on the market.

These four are all works of meticulous scholarship, based on original research in international, national and regional archives. They are also as readable as they are informative. You could argue that Georgiana was a somewhat racy character, whose biography was publicised by somewhat racy publicity, and that Beevor's work was bound to have a wide appeal to the boys'-own reader. But this does not explain the success of MacCulloch's portrait of a 16th-century churchman or of Vickery's sober albeit attractive social study.

Given the current vogue for history at the popular level, it would seem that more rather than fewer monographs are needed. As for the academic level, it is essential students learn their historical and transferable skills from sources ranging from printed primary documents to general surveys and works of synthesis. In this, too, the monograph still has a significant part to play.

Maria Dowling is a lecturer in history at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, London.

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