Cassandra Good, associate editor of the Papers of James Monroe and alt-ac PhD, on how she became a documentary editor–and still finds time to publish her own work.
When I applied for the job I now hold as an editor at the Papers of James Monroe, I didn’t realize that documentary editing was a career path. Volumes of letters by many of the nation’s early presidents sit in long rows in the library, but few people consider who edited these books and how.
Documentary editors are involved in the whole process of turning a handwritten manuscript into a page of a published book. The first task is to get a copy of an original document (most projects have catalogues of identified documents). Next a student, contractor, or editor transcribes the document. The editors then check the transcriptions for accuracy. Editors also comb through documents to decide what terms, names, and other references need annotations. They research and write these annotations, and then compile the documents for publication.
Without realizing that documentary editing was a field in itself, I actually had long background in this area. My first internship in high school was at an historical society, where I transcribed a woman’s nineteenth-century diaries. In college, I did an independent study in which I transcribed, annotated, and wrote an introduction to entries from an early nineteenth-century woman’s commonplace book. After graduation, I worked at the Smithsonian for two years, then went back to graduate school for a PhD; in both settings, I frequently worked with original handwritten documents.
These experiences and my graduate work were good preparation for my job at the Monroe Papers. The bulk of my daily tasks—digging up documents in the archive, reading nineteenth-century handwriting, and researching obscure historical references—were things I had been practicing for years in graduate school. But I had a lot to learn about formal editing standards, the practices of my particular project, and James Monroe (the least studied of the founding presidents). The only way to overcome this was to ask a lot of questions and read a lot. I also participated in Camp Edit, the Association for Documentary Editing’s yearly training institute for documentary editing.
I got my PhD in order to do research, and perhaps even more so than in a tenure-track job, that is what I get to do. I’ve been fortunate, with my boss’s support, to have had time to turn my dissertation into a book and start working on my next book. I also present at conferences regularly and teach occasionally. There are downsides, however: most editing projects don’t have permanent funding, editors don’t get summers off or sabbaticals to do their own work, and traditional academics still treat the field as less prestigious.
Academics with a background in History or English (especially for projects on writers) are well trained for the field, but as in other areas, there are very few jobs available. However, scholars can apply for grant funding to publish historical documents and thus start their own small projects. For those interested in the field, I would recommend reading Kline and Perdue’s A Guide to Documentary Editing and checking out the website of the Association for Documentary Editing.