The following is a guest post by Dr. Jane McAuliffe, Director of The John W. Kluge Center.
Later this year, the Librarian of Congress will make someone a millionaire. No, this noble institution has not suddenly entered the world of TV games shows nor, for those of you whose memories reach back to the 1950s, is the Librarian about to recap the role of John Beresford Tipton, Jr.
This new millionaire will be a scholar (or scholars) whose body of work has enriched and expanded our understanding of the human condition. He or she will have taken a chosen field of scholarly or creative endeavor to new heights, will have explored unasked questions and recast traditional understandings in novel and unfamiliar ways. To honor such significant scholarship and cumulative creative endeavor, the late John W. Kluge endowed the Library of Congress with funding sufficient to create a Nobel-like prize in those areas, the humanities and social sciences, which lack awards of such distinction. Beginning in 2003, eight Kluge Prize laureates have been selected: Leszek Kolakowski, Paul Ricoeur, Jaroslav Pelikan, John Hope Franklin, Yu Ying-shih, Romila Thapar, Peter Brown and Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
These winners span the globe–Brazil, China, France, India, Ireland, Poland and the United States–and they represent an extraordinary record of achievement in the humanities and social sciences. How are such scholars identified? The process is intensive, time-consuming and complex. Letters inviting nominations are sent to individuals and institutions around the world. More than 3,000 such invitations stimulate a flood of nominations and generate reams of documentation in support of those nominated. As nominations are being received, the Librarian of Congress strikes a committee composed of senior staff in curatorial and research positions whose areas of specialization reflect fields and regional expertize across the humanities and social sciences. This committee culls through all the nominations and their supporting documentation during its frequent meetings. With the vast bibliographic resources of the Library of Congress at its beck, committee members check publications and pull copies of books from the stacks. Through a process of spirited dialogue and debate, the committee creates a long list of those individuals whose nomination deserves more intensive consideration.
At this point targeted research is undertaken for the names on that list and dossiers are prepared for the Scholars Council, a group of internationally renowned scholars who constitute an advisory body for the Librarian of Congress and the John W. Kluge Center. By the time the Scholars Council convenes, they will have spent many hours working through these assembled dossiers and building their arguments about the merits of one individual over another. After the Scholars Council winnows the longer list, even more intensive research is done on the short-listed nominees. Experts are commissioned to write long evaluative reports and other experts are convened to consider these reports and to assess the full body of work for each candidate under consideration.
After such extensive consultation, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, makes the final choice. Then, as he has done eight times before, he will pick up the phone to convey some very surprising news. This year’s news will be especially surprising: in recognition of the Kluge Center’s fifteenth anniversary, the amount of the Kluge Prize will be $1,500,000, making its fortunate recipient (or recipients) even more than a millionaire.