Humanities Open Book Program

The Humanities Open Book Program was designed to make outstanding out-of-print humanities books available to a wide audience, and was jointly sponsored by NEH and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Traditionally, printed books have been the primary medium for expressing, communicating, and debating humanistic ideas. However, the majority of humanities monographs sell a small number of copies (today, roughly 200 – 300) and then quickly go out of print. As a result, there is a huge, mostly untapped resource of remarkable scholarship going back decades that is largely unused by today’s scholars, teachers, students, and members of the public, many of whom turn first to the Internet when looking for information. Modern ebook technology was seen as one way to make these books more accessible than ever before.

NEH and Mellon solicited proposals from academic presses, scholarly societies, museums, libraries, and other institutions that publish books in the humanities to participate in the Humanities Open Book Program. Applicants provided a list of previously published humanities books along with brief descriptions of their intellectual significance and why they would be of interest to a modern audience.

Awardees digitize these books and make them available as Creative Commons-licensed ebooks that can be read by the public at no charge on computers, mobile devices, and ebook readers. The books will then be free to read, forever, anywhere in the world. Presses must make the ebook available at no charge. However, they are allowed to sell value-added versions of the book (e.g. a printed version) for a fee.

NEH and Mellon jointly funded this program for four years and plans to assess its impact.

 Here is a brief summary of some takeaways about this program:

  •  The number of people downloading/reading these books greatly exceeded our expectations (see chart that follows for some numbers). Putting these books onto platforms like JSTOR and MUSE has enabled new readers, from all over the world, to discover the books.
  • The program has helped university presses develop the skills and processes necessary to begin regaining intellectual control of their backlists (out-of-print books) with the goal of making these books more accessible.
  • Several presses are now embarking on frontlist (newly published) open access books to accompany the backlist books funded by the NEH and Mellon.
  • The cost of digitizing an individual book is very low and there are few technical challenges. The most costly and time-consuming work for the grantee is in clearing the rights for the book, particularly for older books (where rights-holders are difficult to locate) or books with many images.
  • In general, authors have been very enthusiastic about putting their books back into circulation, as they are long out of print and are no longer generating any sales.
  • Several presses have indicated that the new ebooks (as well as print-on-demand versions of those books) are being adopted by professors for courses. This allows students to download the book for free or, if they prefer, to purchase a paper copy, which in turn provides some modest income to the press.
  • Presses have found that libraries are effective partners in getting the word out to readers and faculty about the new availability of the books.
  • The field has become much more sophisticated just in the past four years on matters related to creating and distributing open access monographs. This is due, in part, to the Humanities Open Book program.