The Independent Scholar Movement
Although independent scholars have participated in learned societies for centuries, the origin of associations specifically oriented toward extra-academic scholars appears to have been in the mid-1970s in the United States, a time when the rapid expansion and then contraction of U.S. higher education led to the displacement of many new doctoral graduates from academia. Others became independent scholars after retiring from professorships or leaving tenured positions in order to devote more time to research. Even among independent scholars who had initially hoped for academic positions, most had created a life that they were later reluctant to change.
Several groups were formed to accommodate those who had left or chose not to join academia. The Institute for Research in History, founded in New York in 1976, was likely the first group of independent scholars to organize. The next was the Center for Independent Study in New Haven (est. 1977), followed by the Princeton Research Forum, the Institute for Historical Study in San Francisco, and the Alliance of Independent Scholars in Massachusetts in 1980. The movement also benefited from the work of Ronald Gross, a scholar from New York State. In 1982, Gross published The Independent Scholar's Handbook, which received widespread attention. Several new groups began in the early 1980's, including the San Diego Independent Scholars and the Northwest Independent Scholars Association, started in 1982; the Independent Scholars Association of the North Carolina Triangle and the Five College Associates in Amherst in 1983; and the Association of Independent Historians of Art in 1984. The latter three are either defunct or have turned into different types of associations beyond the purview of independent scholars.
The First Conference & the Beginning of NCIS
In 1986 the San Diego Independent Scholars sponsored a national conference. Members of a panel discussed the fact that independent scholars had certain problems that were difficult for local groups to resolve because they involved communicating with national institutions, such as the federal government, foundations, and professional societies. Moreover, without a national organization, it was often difficult for independent scholars to find the local groups. Following the conference, a committee was formed to investigate the issue further, concluding with the recommendation that a national organization be created. Elections to the first board took place in the summer of 1988, and the Coalition was born in 1989.
The issues of greatest concern to the Coalition have been access to libraries and journals, the policies of agencies that offer academic grants, and technology. Repeated investigations and surveys have found that most independent scholars succeed in patching together sufficient access to library services, but that they often have to surmount obstacles in order to do so. These hurdles have including difficulties in obtaining access to certain private university libraries, high fees, and the refusal of borrowing privileges or interlibrary loan service. We asked the disciplinary societies to urge their members to request their academic institutions to provide library privileges, including interlibrary loan privileges, to unaffiliated or unemployed fellow members.
Our early difficulty with the issue of research funding was that many grants were awarded on a salary replacement basis, which discouraged scholars who had no salary from applying. Another trend that has aroused concern is the increasing preference of funding agencies for dealing exclusively with other institutions, not with individuals; a practice that excludes many independent scholars. In such situations, the Coalition's not-for-profit status means we can act as fiscal administrator of the grant, accepting agency funds on the member’s behalf and then dispersing those funds to the member.
The issue of technology has been perennially addressed by the NCIS leadership, and we have been successful in obtaining a NCIS member discount to JSTOR, one of the largest journal archives. We continue to advocate for access to academic libraries equal to that of the institution's own faculty, and extending more privileges to visiting independent scholars. These avenues of access will permit our members to use the latest technologies for research in institutional libraries and archives including remote access from their home offices.
NCIS continues to adapt to best meet the changing needs of scholars in the 21st century. Our significant benefits package provides independent scholars with the professional support that comes with institutional affiliation. We advocate on members’ behalf to bring them well-deserved recognition for their scholarship and campaign for equal access to scholarly resources. Importantly, publishers and foundations are listening, and many journals now accept NCIS membership as affiliation.
The above text was adapted from Margaret DeLacey’s, “A History of NCIS,”* by Janet Wasserman and Klara Seddon, August 2014.
“A History of NCIS,” by Margaret DeLacey, reprinted with permission from The Council of Chairs Newsletter, Issue 46 (August 1995).
October 25, 1987: San Diego, CA: Founding conference.
December 1987: Institute for Historical Study, Oakland CA: "Scholarship for Love and Money" (regional conference).
March 28, 1988: Center for Independent Study, New Haven CT (regional conference).
April 7, 1990: Cambridge, MA "Women Mystery Story Writers" (one-day conference co-sponsored by NCIS).
April 23-25 1993: Chevy Chase, MD "Independent Scholars in the 1990s: Intellectual and Practical Issues" (first official NCIS conference).
October 21-23, 1994: Oakland CA: "Independent Scholars: Finding an Audience".
May 3-5, 1996: Princeton N.J. "Situating Scholarship".
October 18, 1997: San Francisco, CA, "The Scholarly Imperative: What Inspires Independent Scholars?" (one-day conference).
October 2-4, 1998: St. Paul, MN, "The Future of Scholarship: Independent?".
October 27-29, 2000: Raleigh, NC, "Independent Scholars: the Public Intellectuals of the Future".
October 4-6, 2002: Vancouver, BC, Canada.
October 15-17, 2004: New York, NY, "Independent Scholars: Coming of Age".
October 8, 2005: Portland OR, "Selling Your Scholarship: Writing Marketable Non-fiction" (one-day conference).
June 16-18, 2006: Princeton NJ, "Scholars Without Borders".
October 25-26, 2008: Berkeley, CA.
June 18-21, 2015 : Yale, New Haven, CT. “Traditions and Transitions: Independent Scholars and the Digital Landscape”. (celebrating 25 years of NCIS). Learn more about the 2015 NCIS Conference.
[June 2019 Conference now being planned]