As part of our seventy-fifth anniversary, we at the Omohundro Institute continue to reflect on what makes our institution such a special place. One of those things is our Apprenticeship in Historical Editing. Today’s guest post comes from former apprentice Kevin Butterfield who is now the Executive Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
“A Style Sheet for a Career in History”
By Kevin Butterfield
Earlier today, as I was about to meet with a colleague who had some editorial questions about indexing, I did something I’ve done hundreds of times over the last two decades: I pulled out my red spiral-bound “Style Sheet for Authors” (rev. ed., 1992) put together by the Books program at the then Omohundro-less Institute for Early American History and Culture. I got the utterly and perpetually useful guide when I was an apprentice in the late 1990s; I used it still more when I stayed on for a year working full time for Gil Kelly and Fredrika Teute at the IEAHC (which officially got its O while I was there, actually); and I used it nearly daily for years while working in academic publishing.
Now that I’ve gone through a few more career transitions, somehow the style guide still comes through for me. It’s unabashedly traditional in its approach, though as the booklet itself notes “this conservatism stems from the care with which they [the editors] attempt to prepare copy for publication, not from blind attachment to old forms” (1). And I can appreciate now, looking back, how important it was for me that my earliest moments moving from an undergraduate to a postgraduate mindset were shaped by the Institute’s infamous attentiveness to detail—or, better put, “the care with which they attempt to prepare copy for publication.”
When I came to William & Mary from the University of Missouri, as a first-generation college student and as someone who loved history but didn’t really know much about how to go about doing history, I had the amazing good fortune to be invited into the editorial apprenticeship program. I must have been a late invite—I got the news so late that I couldn’t even make it to the pre-semester training sessions—so the serendipity/dumb luck of it all still gets me. Either I did well enough at it (much of the first semester involved checking quotes for Chris Grasso’s A Speaking Aristocracy, I remember, on nauseating microcards) or they were hard up for help, but I was asked to stay on the following year. Then, I learned even more from Gil, Ginny Chew, and Kathy Burdette about how and why copyeditors do what they do to the manuscripts handed them. And, just as important, I learned from visiting Books editor Jim Horn and, on her return, Fredrika how and why acquisitions editors had chosen those manuscripts in the first place. It was a tremendous school for a possibly budding historian.
The Institute’s editors made such an impression on me that I even stopped trying to be a historian, albeit briefly. I instead stayed in academic publishing, working at Northern Illinois University Press, for the next four or five years and making the most of my training. Later, when I did decide to return to graduate school, I worked with legal historian David Konig (whose work I had actually first encountered while copyediting The Many Legalities of Early America project), and I had a set of skills and a mindset that could only have come from editorial work. I was one of the lucky ones. I had been given a chance to make it in an academic world filled with people smarter than me, because I had, at the very least, a few skills and a zealous fastidiousness that many others hadn’t had a chance to develop.
It made a difference, somehow. I wound up with a great tenure-track job at the University of Oklahoma, where I received tenure in 2016. I wrote and published a not-terrible legal history of early American civil society, though obviously the copyeditor and I had a few good-natured disagreements. And now I sit at Mount Vernon as the new director of George Washington’s presidential library, thinking about library acquisitions that involve Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogs, educational programs that span the continent, and research fellowship programs that aim to bring the best and the brightest to work here on the estate. I can’t imagine any of this happening without those first experiences at the Institute. And I’m glad I kept the handouts.
Stay tuned for part 5 of OI History: “Tales from Former Apprentices.”