In or out: Observations of an occasional NEH staff member

Terry Abraham
Special Collections and Archives University of Idaho
Moscow, ID 83843

September 23, 1988

Prepared for the 52nd Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Atlanta, October 2, 1988

Recently I spent about a year in Washington, D. C. as member of the staff of the Access category of the Reference Materials Program in the Research Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This is the unit of NEH which makes the bulk of awards to archival institutions. Because I served as an IPA (in effect I was loaned to the Endowment by my home institution; the University of Idaho) my experience was tempered by the fact that I was not a career employee and that I would be leaving at the end of my term. This is, in fact, one of the chief reasons for the success of the IPA program. {For more information about the IPA experience, see the SAA Newsletter, January 1988. To volunteer for consideration, write and send a copy of your vita.}

The nature of this assignment gave me the framework for today's presentation. I was outside looking in, then inside looking around, and -- later -- inside looking out. What follows are my observations from those three vantage points.


Like a goodly percentage of you, I am an unsuccessful applicant to NEH. I have gone through the trial of writing an application, sending off twenty-some copies, and waiting anxiously for nearly a year to find out whether I was successful or not. I do not recall that experience with any enthusiasm, particularly since I was unsuccessful. As a result, I think I would have categorized my impressions of NEH as relatively unfavorable.

All of the evils we naturally associate with the federal government would probably have sprung to mind if I had been asked. I was most strikingly aware of the formidable application guidelines. It was very unlike the two-page letter of application considered sufficient for some private foundations; NEH wanted twenty pages of narrative, vitas of everybody and their pets, a budget form that was about as confusing as anything I had ever seen (now much improved), plus they wanted three (and now eight) suggested reviewers. The time spent in writing, rewriting, and rewriting the application (and then doing it again for the budget -- this was before spreadsheets made budgeting simpler) was considerable.

Added to the impressive requirements of filling out an application was the absolutely mysterious process of decision. Why did they get accepted and I get rejected? Was it geography, size, politics, subject, or methodology? How important was just plain dumb luck? Yes, I asked for, and received, an explanation of the reasons for the rejection but the process itself was quite mysterious.

These elements added up to a feeling that the Endowment, like other federal agencies, was bureaucratic, insensitive, and monolithic. Most of all, perhaps, it was that feeling of powerlessness, of having no idea what was going on or how to find out.

Those were my impressions as best as I can recall them. I never submitted another application but I did continue to receive proposals for review; in one week several years ago I received five (a burden the staff took pains to avoid this past year). In general, however, I did not pay too much attention to the Endowment except in so far as it affected my friends and colleagues and the profession. Then I got this telephone call from Pat Nolan asking if I would be interested in working at the Endowment for a year.


An IPA assigned to the Research Division is treated, from day one, as a fully functioning member of the staff. As such, I was engaged in the work of a Program Officer almost before I was able to figure out what that entailed. There were efforts to provide orientation -- some more formal than others -- but in the main it was on-the-job training. What I found was an office environment fully as primitive as the least of the state agricultural colleges. Modular office cubicles with neck high partitions sometimes looked like western groundhog villages as heads popped up and down at their desks. The size of each cubicle is allocated by grade, you can literally tell how important someone is by the square footage. Office automation at the Endowment seems stuck in 1975. Program officers have to laugh at applicants who offer to provide samples of their project on disk or by modem; those now common-place objects -- the personal computer -- are as scarce as Pepsi here in Atlanta. And where I had thought of the Endowment as monolithic -- a natural impression when seen from 3000 miles away -- I quickly discovered it was actually comprised of jealously guarded individual fiefdoms. Add to all this the fact that the Old Post Office is a multiple-use historic structure with fast-food booths, tourist shops, and noon musical entertainment at the lower levels -- and where the smells, energy, and sounds rise up on some days to overwhelm the more prosaic offices on the upper floors -- it turns out that the Endowment is quite an interesting place to work. And I should add that the staff are terrific people to work with.

Program officers at the Endowment have several roles: they serve as advisors to potential grantees (you are encouraged to consult with the staff and to send in a draft of your application about two months before the final deadline), as facilitators of the review process (selecting reviewers from the eight applicant supplied names and adding others, identifying potential panelists, summarizing evaluator's comments for the National Council's deliberations), administering existing grants (dealing with queries, extensions, renewals, supplements and emergencies; reading performance reports, undertaking site visits), and -- in whatever time remains -- revising the program guidelines and developing new initiatives. It can be a challenging and fulfilling job and one with both satisfactions and disappointments.

Accordingly, I learned a lot about the Endowment's processes and found that my preconceptions were far wide of the mark. It is possible for an outsider to find out how the Endowment works, I found; as a staff member I assisted in the rewriting of the divisional and program guidelines which provide, over and over, a brief but complete statement of the process of application, review and decision making. They stress (and this emphasis has substantially increased in recent years) the requirement that the project be of national significance for research in the humanities. If anything, this could be said to be the overriding concern of the Division of Research Programs.

What is also clearly stated, but perhaps not so apparent to the reader, is that there is intense competition for a limited number of award dollars. In the Access category there were requests for over $20 million; we had slightly more than $2 million to disburse. In this kind of environment, questions of significance are answered by the evaluations of the specialist reviewers and the panelists. According to Neil Harris, in a recent §History News§, the peer review process is a killer of innovative projects, the modern version of the "death of a thousand cuts." On the other hand, it should be evident that no matter how meritorious the project's idea might be, there is no point in awarding money if it is clear that the applicant doesn't have any idea how to undertake the project.

What is not quite so clear from the publications and brochures is the essential fairness of the review process. In the main, the evaluation of a proposal rests on the reviewers and panelists. Some of the reviewers are suggested by the applicant. Some are selected by the staff. That kind of a split ensures that the reviewers are not all friends and relations of the applicant nor are they staff-selected "swat teams." The staff, in fact, tries to ensure that each proposal is reviewed by specialist scholars in the field -- whether that field is 19th century American labor or 16th century European dance or 13th century Balinese literature -- and by archivists, librarians, bibliographers and others with methodological expertise. I found that the latter frequently have strong subject expertise and are willing to venture an opinion on the scholarly significance of a project while scholars -- particularly academic scholars -- are reluctant to address the methodological issues. "I think this is a fine idea but you'll have to ask the archivists if it is feasible," is a frequent response.

No proposal will be recommended for funding unless it has received the overwhelming endorsement of the reviewers and panelists. And the obverse is equally true. No proposal will receive an award if it has been rejected by all the evaluators. However, there are two caveats to that statement. The first is that frequently more applications are recommended for approval than funds exist. Accordingly, only a portion of those with the highest rankings will receive an award.

The second caveat is that, by virtue of the enabling legislation, all funding decisions are made by the Chairman who is free to accept or reject any of the recommendations made by staff, reviewers, panelists, or the National Council on the Humanities. I am not aware of any case in which the Chairman overturned a unanimous recommendation.

Given the importance of the reviewers to this process, let me encourage you to give thoughtful and careful consideration to any proposals sent to you. Your analysis and recommendations are of critical importance. It is extremely frustrating to have requested eight or nine reviews and to receive back only one or two. I realize that the review (hopefully not five at a time) lands on your desk unsolicited and many have complained that they would have appreciated being phoned first. Last year we had 166 applications; we requested at least eight reviews for each application; this totals over 1300 reviews requested in about a month's time. Advance telephone calls are just not feasible.


Given all the above, what would I recommend to potential applicants? First, ask for the program information; read everything very carefully. Each word in the guidelines has been evaluated and reevaluated for content and meaning year after year. Note particularly statements about competitiveness. Frequently, that kind of a statement is not intended to bar a project from the competition; it merely suggests that the proposal has to be extraordinarily strong to be successful.

Consult with the program staff; phone numbers are in the division guidelines. They can answer specific questions about eligibility, competitiveness, and significance. But when the staff suggests that a bibliography of Elvis sightings is unlikely to be competitive, I would encourage you to take that suggestion seriously. Remember, it is to the staff's advantage to encourage strong proposals. As I mentioned before, plan ahead sufficiently so that you have time to send in a draft proposal. Read the staff comments carefully but remember that they are making suggestions based on their experiences. The reviewers and panelists, in all likelihood, will make additional criticisms. If those are sufficient to keep your project from being funded, do not despair. Write and ask for the evaluator's comments. Let them help you revise the proposal. As I've said many times, it may be the most expensive free advice you'll ever get. Send in another draft. Try again. As one applicant stated, he had learned that "persistence is the mother of subvention." However, if the reviewer's comments make it clear that the proposal has a fatal flaw (or two or three) then you might consider dropping that one and working up a different kind of proposal.

In either case, remember that you are asking for an expenditure of public funds and your application needs to justify its request for those funds in accordance with agency guidelines. And, in areas where national standards (such as MARC AMC) exist, your proposal must follow those standards or persuasively argue why the standards are not applicable in this specific case. If you can justify an exception, then go ahead; but it has to be convincing.

Some applicants are particularly concerned with the Endowment's track record; they want to know what grants have been awarded in a particular area to see if there has been a programmatic emphasis that they can capitalize on. While I think it is interesting to review the list of past awards (you can write and ask for them) I am not sure that such an analysis would be very fruitful. Each year, the review process is different. Different applications, different reviewers, different panelists, and, frequently (in the IPA position at least), different staff.

Looking at the award list from another angle leads to a slightly different observation. Since the Endowment started making awards to archival projects in earnest about fifteen years ago, the archival world has changed substantially. And I would follow Margaret Child's suggestion (in §Library Trends§, Summer 1987) that it has changed in large part because of the impact of federal dollars -- through NEH and NHPRC. NEH has funded some of the most important and significant archival projects in recent years. The women's sources survey, the SAA security, automation, publications, and conservation initiatives, the Pennsylvania Railroad project, the New York State records survey, and a host of others. I was struck, in looking over the list, by how many of the dominant individuals in this field are or have been NEH project directors. And I suspect that a substantial proportion of the current generation of archivists present at this meeting, got their boost in the profession through working on federally funded projects.

How to repay that debt to the profession? By letters of support to your senators and representatives. By working in our institutions and in our states to support the importance of the humanities. Each of us has benefited; each of us can help.

The final word I wish to leave with you today is what I call the worst curse scenario. For all that have applied to NEH for funds, and for all the hassles involved in the application process, it pales in comparison with actually having to operate and administer a grant. Getting the award might be the worst thing that could happen to you. Thank you.

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