The National Coalition of Independent Scholars is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization
founded in 1989. Its goals are to:
• bring independent scholars together to share scholarly interests and expertise
• improve access to research institutions, libraries and special collections
• offer information and advice about grants, fellowships and publishing
• work with foundations to open competitions to independent scholars and include them on review committees
• hold conferences and workshops of interest both to independent scholars and the public
• offer grants-in-aid to members
• serve as a fiscal administrator for members seeking grants from organizations outside of NCIS
• encourage information exchange through publications and electronic communication
• aid organizations of independent scholars
• provide information for the creation of local organizations of independent scholars
NCIS defines its members as scholars whose research, unlike that of full-time faculty, is not supported by an institution. Membership is open to independent scholars from all disciplines. Applicants are required to submit a CV demonstrating a record of scholarly publications and/or conference presentations. NCIS does not require advanced degrees, but it does expect applicants to show that they are actively carrying out work of scholarly merit. NCIS affiliate members are made up of regional and international independent scholars’ organizations. A volunteer Board of Directors, elected from the NCIS membership, leads NCIS.
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. (This group eventually dissolved.) The next was the Center for Independent Study in New Haven, which began in 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. The most difficult hurdles were 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. NCIS now publishes an online directory of public and university libraries in the United States, providing details on borrowing privileges.
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. Still of concern are cuts in federal allocations to government-sponsored funding agencies such as the NEH and NEA. 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 this scenario NCIS may 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 with recent success in obtaining a NCIS member discount to JSTOR, one of the largest journal archives. As of 2014, the launching of a redesigned website will streamline many of NCIS’ administrative tasks, allowing the Board of Directors to focus on issues such as the high cost of subscription to digitized databases of scholarly material, particularly scholarly journals. 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.
In pursuit of its mission, the Coalition aims to build relationships with the learned societies of many disciplines. At present, NCIS’ volunteer Board members have lacked the time to consult with the many societies on a regular basis. Another difficulty has been that, unlike most learned societies, we are not organized around a particular academic discipline. To encourage both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary collaboration within our membership, we organize interest groups focused on disciplinary issues, the members of which can then develop relations with the relevant learned societies. The Coalition’s newsletter, The Independent Scholar Quarterly (TIS) was retired in 2014 and is being re-envisioned as tis:BLOG, a blog which will publicize the many grants, awards, programs, and conference announcements from these societies.
Since its inception NCIS has and 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 ensure equal access to scholarly resources. Distribution and access practices are evolving. Publishers and foundations are listening and NCIS is making its cause heard.
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.