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American Council of Learned Societies

Purpose, Organization

The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) is a private, nonprofit federation of sixty-six national scholarly organizations in the humanities and social sciences. The object of the council, as set forth in its constitution, is the "advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of learning and the maintenance and strengthening of relations among the national societies devoted to such studies." The council funds humanities scholarships, convenes meetings and conferences that identify and address issues of concern to the academic humanities and its constituent learned societies, and advocates on behalf of the academic humanities.


ACLS is best known as a funder of humanities research through fellowships and grants awarded to individuals and, on occasion, to groups and institutions. The centerpiece of this work is the ACLS Fellowship Program. ACLS Fellowships are designed to permit recipients to devote six to nine months of research and writing in such fields as literatures and languages, history, anthropology, political and social theory, philosophy, classics, religion, the history of art, linguistics, musicology, and the study of diverse world civilizations and cultures. The intensive peer-review process that results in the selection of these fellows is an opportunity for distinguished scholars to reach broad consensus on standards of quality in humanistic research.

An endowment provides the funds that the ACLS Fellowship Program awards to individual scholars, but the council also funds scholarly research through regranting funds awarded to it by foundations, the U.S. government, and foreign organizations. Some of these programs are focused on particular fields, such as the Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art that supports Ph.D. candidates working on the history of the visual arts of the United States. With the support from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, the ACLS has begun a program of Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars, designed to allow a small number of younger scholars in the humanities to undertake long-term, ambitious scholarly projects. The Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship Program, also supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, provides sizeable fellowships to advanced assistant professors who have advanced their fields and who have well-designed and carefully developed plans for new research.

The ACLS has long engaged in international studies by providing opportunities for American scholars to advance scholarly projects on an international basis and by developing contacts with overseas academic communities. The development of area studies in this country owes much to the impetus provided by the ACLS. In the 1920s the ACLS became one of the first American scholarly organizations to promote studies of East Asia. The original concept of organizing scholarly expertise around an area or cultural region grew out of the council's early work in Oriental studies and language training, and its ability to bring a wide variety of humanists and social scientists together in interdisciplinary work. ACLS made it possible to launch area studies and sustain them over an extended period. After World War II, when the practical need for such competence was evident, ACLS and the Social Science Research Council joined to organize and develop African, Asian, Latin American, Near and Middle Eastern, Slavic, and East and West European studies. For more than forty years, the council has cooperated with the Social Science Research Council in organizing research and area studies on global issues. The ACLS Committee on East European Studies has expanded and consolidated scholarship on that region; it publishes East European Politics and Societies, the only significant peer-reviewed scholarly journal dedicated to that field. With funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, ACLS has begun a program proving grants to sustain individuals in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine who are doing exemplary work in a time of crisis and contraction, so as to assure continued future leadership in the humanities.

Among the council's publication ventures, the most ambitious and substantial is the American National Biography (ANB), which was published in print in 1999 and in an online version in 2000. The ANB is, in print, a twenty-five volume collection of approximately 18,000 biographies of significant individuals in American history, written by more than 7,000 expert authors. It is a successor to the Dictionary of American Biography, first published in 1928 and also sponsored by ACLS. Also important is the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, with articles on significant scientists from antiquity to modern times. A third major reference work, the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, was completed in 1989. In addition to these reference works, other publications of importance to scholarship sponsored by ACLS include the ongoing publication of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin in a thirty volume edition. The ACLS also published a critical and definitive edition of the Works of William James in nineteen volumes and supports the ongoing preparation and publication of the Correspondence of William James in twelve volumes. In 1999 ACLS, together with five of its constituent learned societies and ten university presses, launched the History E-Book Project, which will publish, in electronic format, both new and time-tested works of history.

The ACLS, as the most broadly based organization representing scholars as scholars rather than as specialists in particular fields, is well-positioned to serve as advocate on behalf of the scholarly humanities in public forums and policy arenas. The council's critical role in helping to establish (in 1964) and to reauthorize (in 1985) the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is perhaps the most notable example of its exercise of this function.

ACLS draws together learned societies and affiliates for consideration of shared concerns, particularly those related to maintaining and improving conditions for scholarship, education, and communication among scholars in the humanities. Each member society appoints a delegate, who serves as its representative. The delegates gather each year at the ACLS annual meeting. The principal staff members of the constituent societies comprise the conference of administrative officers, which meets in the fall and again in the spring.

Through its committees ACLS has encouraged the development of research in many fields, set criteria and professional standards, planned and accumulated bibliographical and reference materials, and helped to establish scholarly journals. Several national societies of scholars had their beginnings in ACLS committees. Among these are the Medieval Academy of America, the Renaissance Society of America, the Far Eastern Association (now the Association for Asian Studies), the American Studies Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, and the Middle East Studies Association.


The council consists of a fifteen-member board of directors and one delegate from each constituent society. An elected board of directors establishes and reviews policies, sets strategic directions, oversees the investment of endowed funds, and reports on all major decisions to the constituent societies. The council holds an annual meeting, elects officers and members of the board of directors, provides general and fiscal oversight, and assisted by the executive committee of the delegates, admits new members. Membership in the ACLS is restricted to organizations. There are three types of membership. The constituent learned societies of the American Council of Learned Societies are national or international organizations in the humanities and related social sciences. Associate members are a group of more than 200 colleges, universities, research libraries, and other scholarly institutions that each year signal their commitment to the work of the council through their financial contributions. Affiliate members are organizations and institutions (such as the Association of Research Libraries and the Federation of State Humanities Councils) whose goals and purposes are closely linked to those of ACLS.

The ACLS is supported by income from endowment, dues from constituent societies and affiliates, contributions from college and university associates, private and public grants, government contracts, and private gifts.


BLOLAND, HARLAND G., and BLOLAND, SUE M. 1974. American Learned Societies in Transition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

KIGER, JOSEPH C. 1963. American Learned Societies. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

KIGER, JOSEPH C. 1982. Research Institutions and Learned Societies. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

VOSS, JOHN, and WARD, PAUL L., eds. 1970. Confrontation and Learned Societies. New York: New York University Press.




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