The Independent Scholars Handbook - Richard Gross

Originally published in 1982, substantially revised in 1993. Via Kevin Kelly.

A paean and handbook to the “invisible university”—people learning together, everywhere around the world, through every form of media.

It contains a great deal of practical advice for budding researchers. At times this is overly formulaic—reducing research to a linearized process—but I imagine it’s water in a desert to many.

What strikes me most about this book is its anachronisms:

  • the challenges of accessing resources
  • the challenges of getting published
  • “who will do the typing?”
  • the need for a title or affiliation
  • grantor’s unwillingness to fund individuals (rather than orgs)

Things are just massively, massively easier for today’s independent scholar.

Contains some scary stories about the risks of isolation:

The manuscript was Greek to me; it consisted almost entirely of mathematical formulas. After leafing through it for half an hour, I took it around to the science editor and asked him if he could take the first few chapters home with him and look them over on the train so that we could see what we had here. Intrigued, he turned a few pages, then skipped a few, then turned a few more. A frown began to furrow his forehead. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Is it gibberish?”
“Maybe worse than that,” he said, “I’ll take a look and get back to you tomorrow.”
The next day the manuscript was lying on my desk when I arrived at the office. On it was a note from the science editor—four words that I never will forget. “He’s reinvented the calculus.”



I thought that all people without real talent, without skill, whether as writers or artists and so on, would very likely drift into a situation where their clumsiness will be natural and expected. What situation will that be? Of course—innovation. Everybody expects the new to be ill-shapen, to be clumsy. I said to myself, the innovators, with a few exceptions, are probably people without real talent, and that’s why practically all avant-garde art is ugly. But these people, the innovators, have a necessary role to play because they keep things from ossifying, they keep the gates open, and then eventually a man with real talent will move in and make use of the techniques worked out by clumsy people.

Q. Cautionary tale about disheveled independent scholar’s book brought to publisher’s office?
A. “He’s reinvented the calculus.”!


“The Independent Scholar” is a practical and sensitive handbook on para-academia. But what’s most striking is its towering anachronism! It was written in 1993, before Mosaic was available. The internet isn’t mentioned. It’s staggering how much easier things have gotten.

A huge part of the book covers challenges of accessing research materials, library privileges, journal subscriptions, etc. I’ve been doing some lit reviews this week. Without leaving my chair, without affiliation, I’ve accessed ~100 papers from ~30 journals across 5 decades.

Another section covers, rather drearily, the struggle to share one’s work: “There is no question that the traditional, mainline outlets for the products of scholarship are often closed… to the unaffiliated.” Self-publishing is described as “an exhilarating exercise.”

It’s amazing to me how these very real impediments have more or less vanished. I just don’t think about them. The internet is also responsible—though less directly—for the diminished need of official title or affiliation (another major section in the book).

And funding! Sure, it’s still hard for independent scholars to find funding. Crowdfunding and microgrants have real limits. But the book’s treatment assumes you’re going to be mailing letters to traditional foundations. Makes me awfully grateful for weird-internet-money.

Of course, some of the challenges described in the book are still awfully vivid. Chiefly, for me: the struggle to establish collaborations and a community of peers. The internet is a better campus in many ways, but I deeply envy a great department lunch table.

Last updated 2023-07-13.