Historians Protest Smithsonian's Deals

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Society of American Historians, a group that promotes excellence in historical writing, has suspended Smithsonian Books from its ranks in protest over the Smithsonian Institution's "increasingly commercial approach to its mission."

The suspension itself will have little impact, but it is the latest symptom of friction between the Smithsonian's top managers and many of the nation's scholars.

The latest criticism follows a month of public debate over partnerships the Smithsonian made with commercial businesses and the change in policy about access to its archives. In a resolution passed by the historical group's executive board yesterday, the society raised questions about the deal with Showtime Networks to create a series of 100 programs a year based on the Smithsonian collections and experts. But the historians also raised questions about a second contract, this one a publishing pact with HarperCollins.

"We urge Smithsonian to reconsider its contract with Showtime, as well as the character of its publishing program. In the meantime, the SAH has suspended Smithsonian Books as a publisher-member of the Society of American Historians," the resolution said.

The group's members include such highly regarded historians as as Eric Foner, who won the Bancroft Prize for his volume on the Reconstruction era; Steven Hahn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his study of the political struggles of blacks in the South; and David Levering Lewis, who won two Pulitzers for his biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois. The society also has 17 publisher-members that set the society's standard for well-crafted literary texts. "We no longer have confidence that Smithsonian Books will adhere to this high standard," said Mark C. Carnes, SAH executive secretary and a history professor at Barnard College.

Linda St. Thomas, director of media relations for the Smithsonian, said officials at the institution had not received any notification from the society and would not comment.

Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins, said her company is engaged in a 15-month program to work with curators on books about work the Smithsonian is involved in.

"There is nothing exclusionary about our arrangement," she said, and the agreement "does not prevent any other writer from producing" a book about work done at the Smithsonian. "There is not a right of first refusal in the contract. Absolutely not."

In recent weeks, the Smithsonian has come under attack from writers, historians and filmmakers. The primary issue is how much access that researchers and producers not affiliated with Showtime will have to Smithsonian archives and the appearance of "right of first refusal" awarded Showtime for any project that has more than "incidental" use of Smithsonian materials.

"The Smithsonian is an institution that involves public money and public trust and is a public archives," said Elizabeth Adkins, president-elect of the Society of American Archivists. "It should follow the general guidelines of equal access. We are distressed."

The exact nature of the agreements are secret. The Smithsonian contends they are proprietary and not subject to freedom-of-information laws that require most federal contracts to be available for public inspection. However, a Smithsonian directive states that "the institution follows the intent and spirit of the law as a matter of policy."

Last month the Smithsonian announced it had entered a production agreement with Showtime Networks to create the cable channel Smithsonian on Demand. As a result, independent filmmakers wanting to make extensive use of the archives would have to offer their idea first to Showtime. Smithsonian officials have said they are not turning down requests from news, public affairs and educational outlets but did reserve the right to review the ideas from independent producers and probably would continue to approve "incidental" use of materials.

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