Publication Date

April 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic


Editors of historical documents do something which few other historians today do—combine scholarship with entrepreneurship. Historical editing, or the process of making significant historical documents accessible through the collection, assembly, transcription, annotation, and publication of documents, is a long and painstaking process. Editors gather material from a variety of sources, analyze and interpret the collected material, and make it available in published form. Because it is such an elaborate and time-consuming undertaking that may take years—sometimes decades—to complete, it is also expensive. As a result, editors have had to find ways to sustain themselves and their work by learning how to fund, market, and publicize their projects. While most of us view the fundraising and entrepreneurial tasks of editors as necessary evils, there are positive elements to these undertakings which too often are undervalued. As our fundraising and entrepreneurial activities compel us to define, redefine, and broaden the audience for our work, editors are drawing effective connections to the current and long-term social, political, and economic implications of historical scholarship.

That historical editors have had to become expert fundraisers and entrepreneurs is due in some measure to the fact that, while our editions are highly valued, the process of editing is not. Historical editors often find themselves set apart from the mainstream academic community. Some editing projects are small and discrete enough to be handled as an independent work by a single historian. Larger projects, often situated in a university, library, or historical society, are staffed by teams of scholars working cooperatively. Yet individual editors, whether working independently or cooperatively, generally do not get the same level of support in terms of grants, sabbatical or release time, promotion, or tenure as do those academics working on articles or monographs. For editors of the larger, multi-staffed, university or library-based editing projects, the situation may be even more precarious than for independent, solo editors. We do not yet have a detailed study confirming this, but my guess is that many editors of institution-based projects (and probably the majority of women editors) do not have the security of permanent institutional appointments, let alone tenure. Many live solely or in large part on project salaries—that is, from outside funds raised by the editors themselves. Further, many editors are responsible not just for securing their own salaries, but for the salaries of full- and part-time staff.

This is a weighty responsibility. As the editor of the Margaret Sanger Papers, I must find ways to sustain a project that will take some ten years to complete. Sponsored by New York University, in association with the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, the project will locate, collect, assemble, and publish the over 200,000 extant Sanger documents in a comprehensive three-series microfilm edition with index, followed by a four-volume book edition of selected, annotated letters. The major costs of the project are salaries (for three full-time staff members, one part-time editorial assistant, and five to ten paid student assistants) and travel expenses (we are conducting an international search for scattered Sanger documents).

Editors of projects the size of the Sanger Papers often have to secure between $150,000 and $250,000 annually, depending on the level of institutional support they receive. Unfortunately, while academic or research-based institutions may recognize the value of these projects, they are not always willing to provide financial support on a long-term basis. These days, few universities or libraries are willing to commit shrinking dollars or other limited resources to supporting long-term, editing projects which, after all, do not bring in large numbers of tuition-paying students and do not generate enough outside funding to return a significant amount of indirect costs to the institutions.

Host institutions may be willing to provide some support (office space, student assistants, clerical help, phones) for these projects out of a commitment to furthering research and scholarship, or, at the very least, from a desire to enhance their public image as a research center. For editors, then, drawing public attention to the scholarly or research value of their projects is increasingly essential to sustaining the goodwill, cooperation, and largesse of their host institution. These efforts will not, of course, be institution-driven. Rather, the responsibility for generating such attention falls on the already overworked editors, who must find the time to lecture, to publish, to sponsor institution-based events focused on their subject, and to generally highlight the value of their projects. The aim is to justify our presence by maintaining a respected, scholarly, and very visible profile both in and out of the institutional community.

Even if such efforts result in increased financial support from a host institution, it is generally only a fraction of what is needed to sustain a project. Editors must still spend a great deal of time raising money. Some portion of the funding might come from federal sources (the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities), but these days such grants are rarely enough to cover all project costs. As governmental funding budgets have remained stagnant over the last decade, editors have been forced to seek more and more of their funding from the private sector. If an editing project is to survive, editors must become adept at seeking out possible funding sources, making contact with them, writing proposals, and generally learning how to “sell” their projects effectively enough to raise sufficient money to sustain them.

This is not an easy task given that many private funders (and indeed many academics) are not fully aware of what it is we do, why it takes so long and costs so much, or what editing projects actually produce. Worse still, many are simply not interested! A representative of one of the largest private foundations, one who has been very sympathetic to editors and supportive of their projects, offered a candid assessment of the problem at a recent meeting of editors by explaining that the long-term needs of editing projects for staff salaries and operating expenses are “antithetical” to the styles and policies of private agencies. By foundation standards, editing projects are neither glamorous nor of compelling interest.

Generating public interest in and awareness of their projects is, then, an essential task for editors. Occasionally, we receive help from unexpected quarters. The Sanger Papers project, for example, benefits any time someone prominent mentions Margaret Sanger. A negative comment can be a special asset. When among others, 1988 Republican presidential-hopeful Pat Robertson chose to attack Sanger by accusing her of supporting genocidal policies toward African-Americans, the Sanger project became a resource for journalists, reproductive rights activists, and others seeking evidence to support or refute his accusation. The incident provided a perfect demonstration for funders of the value of the Sanger project and of the need for editing and disseminating documents which continue to be a source of controversy with vast political implications.

Even with such unanticipated assistance, there is a continued need to become ever more inventive and enterprising. Keeping in mind that the immediate goal is to enhance widespread public interest in our projects, followed hopefully by money and/or increased sales of the editions, some editors have undertaken such activities as sponsoring essay and poster contests, mounting exhibits, and hosting receptions and anniversary celebrations focused on their subjects. Some market their projects by producing brochures, newsletters, and other publicity material. A few have even tried selling or distributing posters, buttons, photographs, and document reproductions. In effect, some editors are running not just an editing project, but an entire public relations enterprise.

But while such publicity and marketing efforts may help, not all editors are comfortable with the commodification of their projects. Moreover, such ancillary activities do not address the main fundraising problem—securing funding from non-governmental sources in amounts large enough to sustain the work. Editors get most of their non-governmental support from private (mostly non-corporate) sources. In learning how to describe and justify the Sanger Papers project to such potential funders, I have discovered that scholarly significance (the justification most historians have traditionally relied upon to get support for their scholarship) is not a persuasive argument. Private foundations have a mission—they want to improve society. At the very least, the officers of these foundations want to be persuaded that such costly projects will result in products that will be used by more than just a small, select group of specialized scholars. Social activism, not humanistic research, is the driving force in the world of private foundations. This perception is borne out by an article on “A New Generation of Foundation Leaders” (Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 4, 1990) which characterized these foundation heads as sharing “a keen interest in consensus-building and grassroots participation in social change; and a near-obsessive desire to ‘make a difference.'” It helps a great deal if a project can be seen to have impact, some direct role, some visibility in the community beyond the university or library.

I have found that program officers of such foundations look for projects that intersect with their specific personal or organizational mandates or address specific policy initiatives. Often this involves relevance to some current issue or problem—the environment, foreign affairs, education, constitutional questions, and for our purposes, reproductive rights. For the Sanger project, this necessitates being able to draw quickly and clearly the connection between access to Sanger’s papers and the current debates over birth control, abortion, overpopulation, First Amendment rights, and censorship issues. I need to convince potential funders not only the value of the papers in and of themselves, but of the vast audience who will use the published editions. I argue that Sanger’s papers will be used not only by scholars and students, but by policymakers, lawyers, reproductive rights activists, social and community organizations, etc.—that is, groups who may not regularly be perceived as users of editions of historical documents. In effect, I am being asked, on a fairly regular basis, to justify the relevance of history by demonstrating the value of historical documents to current social issues and policy questions. We are, then, not only being asked to enhance our role as scholar/editors, but we are having to learn how to present ourselves to private funders as citizen/editors as well.

The amount of fundraising, marketing, and public relations that must be undertaken can be a frustrating and depressing reality. Indeed, I, along with most editors I know, have made an art of complaining about the fact that all of the fundraising and entrepreneurial activity necessary to keep a project alive leaves very little time to do any editing. Often my graduate assistants spend more time working with the documents than I do. But while it is true that I spend almost one-half of my time on fundraising, enhancing public awareness of the project, and trying to expand the potential audience for this edition, these activities have merit beyond the immediate practical goal of insuring the project’s financial solvency or increasing sales of the editions. Our funders are forcing us to ask some very valid and essential questions: Who uses the work? Who can or ought to use it? How is it used? How can we expand interest in the use of documents and historical editions?

Our goal as editors is not just preserving documents, but selecting, analyzing, and interpreting them, and then making them as accessible as possible to the widest audience possible. In the course of my fundraising and public relations activities, I find myself increasingly speaking out as an advocate for resuscitating interest in the use of historical documents not only among teachers, students, policymakers, and activists, but, dare I say it, even among scholars. In the face of a growing body of scholarship whose impact outside of scholarly circles is difficult to locate, editors regularly grapple with issues that the rest of the scholarly community is only beginning to address.

I read with interest a report of a conference held last year at Sarah Lawrence College on Women’s History and Public Policy (Perspectives, May/June 1990). According to the report, one of the goals of the conference was to “encourage historians of women to reflect on some of the implications of their work and to pinpoint areas of research that can contribute to public policy debate.” That is, in my view, an essential concern, yet, so far as I know, no editor of a woman’s papers project was represented among the invited participants. That is too bad, since editors (along with public historians and others who must sustain and justify their work not only within but outside of the traditional academic orbit) have been addressing and exploring many of the issues surrounding the relationship of history to public policy every time we justify our work to a funder. Moreover, our emphasis on the social policy implications of the work has not compromised a commitment to pure scholarship.

Interestingly, one of the recommendations that came out of the Sarah Lawrence conference called for “a dramatic expansion of foundation support for research” on gender issues. We cannot, however, expect the initiative for such expansion to come from the foundations. It is up to us to make a more convincing case for the immediate and long-range value (and relevance) of our work. For the 1990s, the ability to define the value of history both in its pure and applied forms, as well as to generate a wider audience for its products, is going to be essential to its survival. I would assert that the skills historical editors have been forced to acquire in order to remain afloat are precisely those needed to expand foundation interest in research and scholarship not only on gender, but on a whole range of issues. In combining scholarship with entrepreneurship, editors have developed strategies for survival that other historians might do well to examine.

Esther Katz is editor and director of The Margaret Sanger Papers Project.