August 9 is National Book Lovers day and so an especially good time to share news about the National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar program, an annual series of grants designed to promote the publication of scholarly nonfiction books for a general audience. This year’s roster of 22 grant winners, announced August 8, includes associate professor of history Stephen Mihm. Mihm will use the NEH grant to support his research and writing of a book on the history of the industrial and technical standards that enable modern life, from the late 18th century to the present.
"Academic historians who try to write for a general audience often believe they must stick to topics that are outwardly exciting: a gripping tale, a colorful figure, a dramatic revelation," Mihm wrote in a summary. "This project, by contrast, tells the history of things so mundane they barely register with professors, much less the general public: uniform weights and measures like the pound, bushel, and foot; technical standards that denominate common sizes and shapes of screw threads, paper clips, and other items; traffic signs and signals; building codes that regulate such minutiae as the height of sinks; and all the other conventions of consistency that impose order on our otherwise chaotic, modern lives. These all belong to a class of banal things called standards. This book tells their story."
Any story can be riveting in the right hands, and Mihm - an engaging scholar with a great ability to weave together interesting connections - will no doubt bring important new insights about society into popular consciousness. Congratulations to Mihm and all the 2018 NEH Public Scholar grant recipients.
Image: wheeled chart of NBS activities, circa 1915, via wikimedia commons.