The American Council of Learned Societies was created in 1919 to represent the United States in the Union Académique Internationale (International Union of Academies). The founders of ACLS—representatives of 13 learned societies—were convinced that a federation of scholarly organizations, most with open membership but all dedicated to excellence in research, was the best possible combination of America’s democratic ethos and intellectual aspirations. The constitution of the new Council stated its mission as “the advancement of humanistic studies in all fields of the humanities and social sciences and the maintenance and strengthening of national societies dedicated to those studies.”

Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities

Since its founding, ACLS has provided the humanities and related social sciences with leadership, opportunities for innovation, and national and international representation. The Council's many activities have at their core the practice of scholarly self-governance. Central to ACLS throughout its history have been its programs of fellowships and grants aiding research. ACLS made its first grants, totaling $4,500, in 1926; in 2019, ACLS is on track to award $25 million to nearly 350 fellows and grantees. All ACLS awards are made through rigorous peer review by specially appointed committees of scholars from throughout the United States and, in some programs, abroad.

Maintaining and Strengthening Relationships among Learned Societies

The executive directors of the member societies of ACLS meet together as the Conference of Administrative Officers (CAO), which before 1988 was known as the Conference of Secretaries. At its first meeting in 1925, the Conference had 11 members, including Frederic Ogg of the American Political Science Association and Ernest W. Burgess of the American Sociological Society (now the American Sociological Association). The goal of the first meeting—as of every meeting for the past 88 years—was “the promotion of closer relations between the associations of humanists [through] a conference in which the secretaries, or principal executive officers, of its constituent societies could make each other’s acquaintance, explain to each other the character, aims and activities of their respective organizations, and discuss, in the light of their various experiences, the many common problems of their societies” (1).

Exploring New Methods and Subjects of Humanities Research

In addition to convening scholars for the purpose of peer review, ACLS has often organized committees of researchers to identify promising fields of study. The development of area studies in this country owes much to the impetus provided by ACLS. The original concept of organizing scholarly expertise around an area or cultural region grew out of the Council's early work in Far Eastern and Slavic studies and language training, and the Council's ability to bring a wide variety of humanists and social scientists together in interdisciplinary work 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.

ACLS Program Committees helped pioneer other areas of research. The Committee on Research in Native American Languages under the leadership of Franz Boas and Edward Sapir began in 1927 to “secure an adequate record of Indian languages and dialects” (2). The Committee on a Journal of Medieval Studies, begun in 1924, founded the journal Speculum. The Committee on the History of Ideas, which included Richard McKeon and Arthur O. Lovejoy, created the Journal of the History of Ideas. As Lovejoy wrote in the journal’s first issue, “The processes of the human mind, in the individual or group, which manifest themselves in history, do not run in the enclosed channels corresponding to the officially established divisions of university faculties.” At the founding conference of the Committee on Negro Studies in 1940, Ralph Bunche observed, “We cannot ignore the importance of making clear to ourselves the scope of our interest in terms of the very broad social implications of our deliberations and resources” (3). Many of the fields of study encouraged by ACLS have reshaped our understanding of the eras, peoples, and subjects they explore.

Since the introduction of computers and other new forms of technology to research in the humanities and social sciences, ACLS has played a major role in helping scholars explore the impact of new technologies on their fields. As early as 1964, ACLS developed a program of grants and fellowships designed to encourage new and significant use of computers in humanistic research, an effort that continues today with our Digital Innovation Fellowships. Our Cultural Commonwealth, the report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, issued in 2006, recommended steps toward a more digital humanities that would make use of new forms of research, reading, and writing.

ACLS has a continuing interest in the problems of scholarly publication. In the past, it conducted a survey of publication needs; established a publication service to advise scholars on effective means to communicate research; and aided scholars through subventions and, to the extent it had the funds, by direct publication. The National Enquiry into the Production and Dissemination of Scholarly Knowledge, sponsored by ACLS from 1974 to 1979, conducted an investigation of all aspects of the publication and dissemination of humanistic scholarship. In 1979 it presented a report of its findings and recommendations, Scholarly Communication: The Report of the National Enquiry, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. As a result of this work, ACLS operated an Office of Scholarly Communication and Technology in Washington, DC, until 1984. Today, the ACLS Humanities E-Book collection focuses on how digital innovations can enhance scholarly communication with new capacities for representing knowledge.

Representing Humanities Scholarship at Home and Abroad

By bringing scholars together as scholars rather than as specialists in particular fields, ACLS is well positioned to serve as advocate on behalf of the scholarly humanities in public fora and policy arenas. The Council's critical role in helping establish (in 1964) and reauthorize (in 1985) the National Endowment for the Humanities is perhaps the most notable example of its exercise of this function.

While continuing to represent the United States in the Union Académique Internationale, ACLS has been active in international scholarly exchange. From 1961 to 1992, the ACLS American Studies Program aided overseas communities of scholars specializing in the study of the United States. The Council, along with other members of the Associated Board of Research Councils, founded the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, the agency that administers the Senior Fulbright Program. In 1992, the United States Information Agency asked ACLS to reinstitute the Fulbright Program in Vietnam, which is now operated through the United States Embassy in Hanoi. The ACLS Center for Educational Exchange with Vietnam today offers fellowship and study opportunities to Vietnamese scholars. In 1966, ACLS, the Social Science Research Council, and the National Academy of Sciences founded the Committee on Scholarly Communication with China, which maintained an office in Beijing to assist American academic institutions with programming in that country. In recent years, ACLS has extended its support of research to scholars in the former USSR, through the ACLS Humanities Program in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, and in Africa, through the African Humanities Program. 

Developing Reference Works and Critical Editions

ACLS's interest in the creation of scholarly reference works dates back to its beginnings. In a 1920 meeting of the newly constituted organization, it was proposed "that the Council should consider the possiblity of undertaking a preparation of an encyclopedia of American biography." The resulting Dictionary of American Biography (DAB) was published by Charles Scribner's Sons in an original set of 20 volumes between 1927 and 1936. The DAB served scholars for over 60 years, until the publication by Oxford University Press of the American National Biography, also sponsored by ACLS. In the 1970s and 1980s, Charles Scribner's Sons published the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and the Dictionary of the Middle Ages, both produced under ACLS auspices. Two ACLS publication projects focused on William James: a definitive edition of his complete correspondence, published in 12 volumes by the University of Virginia, and a critical edition of all of his published writing and previously unpublished manuscript materials, published in 19 volumes by Harvard University Press. An edition of the complete correspondence of Charles Darwin was begun in 1975 under the direction of the late Frederick Burkhardt, ACLS president emeritus, and is ongoing.

Structure and Governance

The organizational structure of ACLS has seen few major changes in the Council’s 95-year existence. The most notable change is the growth in the number of member societies, from 13 founding societies to 78 constituent members today. As the number of societies increased, it became impossible for a council with two representatives from each member to govern effectively. In 1947, therefore, a Board of Directors, elected by the Council, was created to direct ACLS affairs, and the number of delegates representing each society was reduced to one. A second major organizational change occurred in 1957, when the Council moved its headquarters from Washington to New York and appointed Frederick Burkhardt as its first president, signaling a new determination to place scholarship at the center of public culture.

ACLS was incorporated in the District of Columbia in 1924 and received a charter from the United States Congress in 1982.


  1. “The First and Second Conferences of the Secretaries of the Constituent Societies,” ACLS Bulletin 5 (1926):54. Back to text.
  2. “Proceedings, Annual Meeting, 1928,” ACLS Bulletin 7 (April, 1928): 53. Back to text.
  3. “Some Objectives of Negro Studies,” ACLS Bulletin 32 (September 1941): 438. Back to text.