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Adams Papers: An Interview with Editor Sara Martin

Adams Paper Editor-in-Chief Sara Martins discusses her work, and the evolution of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

I recently had the privilege to interview Sara Martin. She is Editor in Chief of the Adams Papers.

Who is Sara Martin?

I was introduced to historical editing through the public history program at Arizona State University, where I earned a master’s degree in history and a certificate in scholarly publishing and documentary editing. My master’s thesis, an edition of the Overland Trail diaries of two emigrants to California in 1860, was my first foray into documentary editing.

After earning my doctorate in history from the University of Melbourne, I joined the staff of the Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in 2008. I started as an assistant editor, and in 2012, I was promoted to series editor of the Adams Family Correspondence, one of the two letterpress series published by the project.

In 2015 I became the editor in chief and now oversee the two letterpress and two digital editions produced by our incredible staff.

Could you paint a picture of what scholarship of the family of John Adams would be like without the Adams Papers?

Professor Gordon S. Wood, in dedicating his recent work Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to the editors of the Adams and Jefferson Papers, remarked on the value of documentary editors.

He wrote, “All the many documentary editors of America’s past are producing work for the ages. . . . We historians, indeed, the entire country, are deeply indebted to them for making available to us in print, whether online or in letterpress editions, the many documents of America’s past” (p. 436).

What we do as historical editors is make archives more accessible to a broader public; thus, any form of historical research benefits from an authoritative documentary edition.

It is impossible to imagine scholarship on the Adams family or much of the early republic through the mid-nineteenth century, for that matter, without the diaries or letters written to or by members of the Adams family. While some nineteenth-century publications of their writings exist, all are inadequate when compared with the modern edition, which is more comprehensive and presents a more complete and faithful text than earlier publications.

Are you aware of any forthcoming dissertations or books making extensive use of the Adams Papers? Has an outside researcher ever contributed to what goes into a new volume?

There has been a great resurgence of interest in the Adamses over the last few years, and we work with scholars of all levels to assist their research. This includes K-12 students working on National History Day projects to Pulitzer Prize-winning historians writing scholarly monographs.

Two of the forthcoming works I’m most excited to read are a critical appraisal of the relationship between John and John Quincy by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg and a history of the family’s religious lives by one of the project’s series editors, Sara Georgini.

Current doctoral work with which we have assisted includes reassessments of John Adams’ legal career and John Quincy Adams’ public life.

Adams Papers editors are responsible for all content within a volume, from proofreading transcriptions to providing annotation and additional historical context.

We regularly consult experts in the field to help us navigate specialized topics.

For example, Prof. John McCusker of Trinity University in San Antonio is a great resource on the arcane world of eighteenth-century finance. We also work closely with the staff at Adams National Historical Park to address questions about the family’s home and properties.

What is one of the most significant challenges you have faced in editing a volume of the Adams Papers?

Unique editorial challenges come up with every volume, and though unexpected they can usually be resolved by trusting the series editors’ deep knowledge of their subjects and the surrounding historical context and allowing the documents to help unravel whatever the thorny issue is.

Beyond editorial decisions, the larger challenge is ensuring the edition remains productive, especially in moments of transition.

My elevation to editor in chief in 2015 triggered a series of internal promotions and new hires.

During my first two years leading the project, every member of the team either changed roles or was new to the Adams Papers. It was a stressful time, but the experienced staff stepped up, going above and beyond their regular duties to ensure we minimized the resulting delays.

We were also fortunate to hire outstanding new staff who hit the ground running and have helped us return to our standard 24-month production cycle.

The Adams Papers began in the early 1950s. How has technology changed both what you do and how you do it? How might further technological advances affect your work going forward?

Thank goodness for computers! (Although when I started with the project, we still updated some of our existing reference materials using an old electric typewriter.). I have to say, though, that even with the complete revolution in the technology used to complete documentary editions, the editorial work fundamentally remains the same. Technology improves our efficiency within those processes and has dramatically expanded our platforms for output.

The integration of social media helps us engage more diverse audiences. This is something the JSP team does exceptionally well. One of the MHS’s more successful endeavors has been the @JQAdams_MHS Twitter account, which was launched in 2009 using John Quincy Adams’ line-a-day diary and now claims nearly 28,000 followers.

Digital editions and other online materials also facilitate access to broader publics. Since the Adams Papers was founded, editors have worked to build a database of all known Adams documents. This control file, organized chronologically, by author, and by subject, resided in our offices and was therefore only accessible to staff and a small number of onsite researchers.

Through generous funding from the NHPRC and the Packard Humanities Institute, we were able to digitize the control file, and the resulting Online Adams Catalog was launched as a free public resource in 2012. Through it, anyone can search more than 100,000 records of Adams documents and can more easily navigate materials included on the 608-reel microfilm edition of the papers.

It is a huge boon to researchers and now generates more than 1,000 hits per month.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the first publication in the Joseph Smith Papers (JSP). What are your thoughts on the quality of the scholarship they are producing? Do you know how the JSP is perceived by scholars in other Papers projects?

The Joseph Smith Papers Project is unique in that from the outset it has structured the edition to satisfy the needs of two main constituencies—scholars, who are the typical primary audience for a documentary edition, and church members, who have a vested interest in the edition.

I believe the project has mitigated questions about the primacy of these respective audiences by hiring qualified historians who are also active scholars in their own right and by adhering to the standards of the field (which has garnered them the endorsement of the NHPRC.)

In terms of organization of the edition, I believe the JSP editors have bridged the needs of their audiences by providing robust online material to supplement the letterpress and digital editions. This includes reference pages offering biographical sketches, topical explanations, and glossaries to provide historical context for a non-specialized audience, all of which cross-reference to related documents in the digital edition.

Are you aware of any scholarship from the JSP that has affected the way other Papers projects approach their work — including the Adams papers?

Most of our project research falls well before the scope of the JSP edition. What has been useful of late is in thinking about how the JSP organizes and presents its historical context.

The Massachusetts Historical Society was fortunate enough to receive a planning grant from the NHPRC and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to explore the idea of establishing a digital publishing cooperative at the MHS. Working with four member editions to start—The John Quincy Adams Diary Digital Project, Papers of Ellen Swallow Richards, Catharine Maria Sedgwick Online Letters, and Papers of Roger Brooke Taney—we are negotiating the parameters for such a cooperative. This includes discussions about shared resources and interoperability.

The JSP was among the projects we considered as models for how we might present information to the public.

What kinds of challenges might a new Papers project face in its infancy, such as the first few years of the JSP?

I think the greatest challenges that documentary editions face in getting off the ground is figuring out how to scale their projects. There is often a gap between what you want to do and what is achievable with the resources at hand. The realities of funding as well as project timelines necessitate decisions about the editorial practices put in place or the final outcomes for the project.

The new volume being published by the JSP is the 17th to come out in the past decade. Could you comment on what factors affect the pace at which works are published in Papers projects?

A project’s production schedule is contingent on the availability of resources and the editorial practices chosen. With deeper pockets and/or a larger, more qualified staff, projects can afford to adopt some of the labor-intensive best practices of the field, including tandem oral proofreading. For projects with fewer financial or personnel resources, it is unrealistic to expect that such a standard can be met.

It is incumbent on every project, however, to incorporate best practices where it can and to make their process transparent by having a clear editorial policy. The Association for Documentary Editing has a great resources page for editors embarking on this journey. ADE also cohosts (with the NHPRC) the annual Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents.

What is an attribute of Abigail Adams you strive to incorporate into your own life?

Abigail was resourceful. She was creative in ensuring the family’s financial well-being during John’s long absences. She engaged in small-scale commerce by sourcing European goods from John and others and reselling them in local commodity-starved markets during the Revolution. She also advocated investing surplus funds in bonds as a long-term strategy, frequently placing her at odds with John, who viewed real estate as a better investment. In addition to her financial resourcefulness,

Abigail was also adept at leveraging her social networks for the family’s benefit. During John’s presidency, especially, she relied on her large circle of correspondents in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., to help reinforce the political messages of John’s administration.

As the editor in chief of a large documentary editing project, it behooves me to be resourceful and to think about and test creative solutions to funding challenges and the ever present need to maintain efficiency in our publication cycle. Fortunately, I am surrounded by skilled editors with great ideas for ensuring the success of the edition.

If you could go back in time and observe any event or procure any documented from the history of the Adams family, what would you do and why?

One of the amazing things about the Adams family was that John’s imperative—“Whatever you write, preserve” (to George Washington Adams and John Adams 2d, 3 May 1815)—applied to both the male and female members of the family.

This leaves us with a rich trove of writings from a wonderfully candid family who were either participants in or eyewitnesses to many of the central events that shaped the nation from the Declaration to disunion.

However, we know that some members of the family—Charles Francis Adams chief among them—curated the family’s correspondence while compiling the archive. Items considered mundane or perhaps inappropriate according to the social norms of the time were excised from the family’s retained papers.

These documents would be a welcome addition to nearly 300,000 extant manuscript pages within the main Adams Family Papers Collection at the MHS.

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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