Something New Under the MHA Sun: Scholars Workshop

By June 12, 2015

This year, MHA piloted something I hope we see more of in the future: a workshop as a pre- or post-conference tour alternative. A half-day workshop about documentary editing (aka ?Geeking Out with Old Documents?) was dreamed up by JI?s own Robin Jensen of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and supported by BYU Special Collections, where the event was held. I helped make some of the initial introductions and arrangements as part of the MHA 2015 Program Committee, and then Local Arrangements took it and ran, and we all held our breath a little as the registration opened up (especially since it was up against the deservedly popular women?s history bus tour ? which I hope we get a write up about! But I digress–), not knowing who would be interested in spending a day in the library learning the ins and outs of turning an original document (letter, diary, manuscript) into a readable resource for researchers, genealogists, and possibly even for publication.

Turns out: quite a lot of folks. IMG_3055The 25-person workshop filled with a mix of Mormon history enthusiasts, amateur historians, people working on books, people who have a stack of family documents that they don?t know what to do with, professional scholars, graduate students, digital curators, public librarians and publishers. Research interests ranged from Revolutionary-War era military history to German literature to more traditional Mormon history topics. We began with an overview of the field and scope of documentary editing, using the excellent (and free!) online Guide to Documentary Editing, by Mary-Jo Kline and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Basically, documentary editing includes gathering, transcribing, annotating, and publishing documents of historic figures, events or movements. Documentary editors have a similar function as archivists, i.e. to collect, preserve, grant access, and serve as gatekeeper to unique manuscript resources. This kind of work is evident both in print and digital forms (e.g. type in any founding father followed by the word “papers”).

Together as a group we looked closely at three digitized documents: an 1841 letter from John Bernhisel in New York to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo; a journal extract sent as a letter from W. W. Phelps in 1835 to his wife Sally; and portions of the missionary diary of Joseph Richards. Each one presented some fun puzzles: why was the Bernhisel letter separated from the rest in this exchange? What might the code mean in Phelps?s diary? How can we make sense of out-of-sequence entries in Richards? diary? Then the reveal that the documents we’d been reading and exploring online were actually in the room with us (!!) so we got to see them up close and personal.IMG_3058

Then we moved through discussion of the differences between literary and documentary editing and best practices established by the board of such things, the Association of Documentary Editing (who, by the way, run an annual “Camp Edit” in case you would like about a week more of this kind of fun each summer).

Starting a project? Understand your scope; recognize there will be both unanticipated problems and scholarly gains; think about sustainability of digital work; and be meticulous in your documentation of source and provenance. We talked through the elements of a ?control file? (database) of the documents involved in a project, and raised some of the unique problems for Mormon history (i.e. private family stashes still hold a lot of Mormonism?s documents, and there?s always a lively market for forgeries so buyer beware).

I learned a lot I didn?t know about the challenges of representing handwritten manuscripts as textual inscriptions. Should you (always?) standardize spelling? What about spacing and line breaks? Do you represent strikethroughs, margin comments, or other later ?corrections? to the original text? What about doodles, code, abbreviations? And I gained a much deeper respect both for the creators of original documents and those engaged in trying to make them more research-friendly especially in a digital age.

Before lunch, we concluded with a pitch from Signature Books? Devery Anderson, who walked us through the basics of submitting a manuscript for publication (pro tip: leave the formatting, font, and other fancy stuff up to the press), and encouraged people, at the least, to deposit their family history work in an archive.

Post-conference, Robin graciously shared with me some of the results from an online survey conducted with the participants (about half of whom completed the survey). All respondents rated it excellent / very good, and were all eager to recommend it to others, which suggests both high quality and interest in seeing more like it. People felt it was accessible for both novices and experts; I agree ? there was definitely something for everyone.

I hope this is the harbinger of more such events. It was reasonably priced, well-attended, and the presenters knew their stuff. The number of professionals, academics, and truly dedicated amateur researchers who attend MHA each year suggests the association would do well to host more like this. When MHA meets farther afield from official church collections, perhaps it could consider some other kind of hands-on workshop by partnering with a local archive, library, university special collections, or museum. Participants suggested workshops on research strategy (sort of Archives and Databases 101), how to use online digital collections, digital publishing, and public history. Lots of exciting possibilities here, I think.

For further reading:
Kline and Perdue, A Guide to Documentary Editing
Dropbox folder of the workshop resources, including Robin?s powerpoint

Article filed under Conference/Presentation Reports Digital Humanities


  1. I was so sad to miss this. (And the women’s tour. How were we supposed to choose between those two?!)

    Comment by Saskia — June 12, 2015 @ 10:14 am

  2. Looks like great fun!

    Comment by Kevin Barney — June 12, 2015 @ 10:45 am

  3. Great idea. It had something for everyone, from historians (who really need more education about docs) to family history compilers who need help in dealing with source docs. It was a useful review for me and captured important distinctions in the field. More like it, please. Training and refresher workshops like this make a great addition to the usual conference fare. Thanks, Robin!

    Comment by WVS — June 12, 2015 @ 11:07 am

  4. I wish I had got in on that. Thanks for posting those resources.

    Comment by Dallas — June 12, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

  5. Great workshop and great writeup. Thanks to everyone involved and to Tona for the writeup!

    Comment by J Stuart — June 12, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

  6. Thanks for this Tona. I probably should have attended this, so the write up is great!

    Comment by Natalie R — June 12, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

  7. I had a great time at this. I really hope to see more stuff like this at MHA.

    Comment by John Hatch — June 12, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

  8. Thanks for linking the source docs. Was disappointed to have missed this, as it pertains exactly to the project I’m working on.

    Comment by Cathy — June 15, 2015 @ 8:32 pm


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