Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

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OI History: Tales from Former Apprentices Part 7

· October 24th, 2018 · No Comments

OI History: Tales from Former Apprentices, Part 7

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 Sherry Babbitt who is now retired but was the former William T. Ranney Director of Publishing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


By: Sherry Babbitt

Millennials did not invent student debt. And my Depression-forged father had never heard of the concept that parents should repay their children’s college loans. So, in early 1976, with graduation from Penn and debt repayments looming, I finally admitted that, despite my serious interest, entering a doctoral history program was probably not the wisest move, given the need to take on even more debt for at least the early years. Graduate students at Penn also had made me aware of their bleak job prospects, especially with the declining enrollments coming after my Baby Boomer cohort.  I don’t recall how I ended up with the information on William & Mary’s M.A. apprenticeships, but I decided to apply for the one that offered editorial training at the famed Institute of Early American History and Culture—-all paid, plus a generous (?!) stipend of $3,000. No additional debt and actual job training were immensely attractive, and, even more importantly, I would be working at the Institute, which published not only the WMQ but also many of the most important books that I had used as an undergraduate. I felt extremely fortunate to be accepted.

Despite a few worries about leaving the gritty but beloved big city for a small town, I almost immediately felt at home in Williamsburg, enjoying the town, my colleagues, and especially the intense, practical training. We learned quickly that this was no drill—-the Institute was relying on our work, and we had to function as professionals.  Assignments were to be completed on time, with no excuses, and we soon had to juggle both the editorial duties at the Institute and the academic demands of the classroom. Our work was critiqued, and a mediocre review was quite humbling but ultimately instructive: I can’t blow this, I thought, because here is a way to combine my love of the scholarship with the chance to earn a living.  At least I had the sense to recognize that the Institute offered unparalleled opportunities to learn and to improve, among masters, and I pushed and pushed myself to refine my skills while absorbing all I could about publishing.

When the apprenticeship ended, I returned to Philadelphia, and soon had a few interviews based, I saw, on the strength of the Williamsburg program.  After getting through a typing test and an even tougher interrogation from the head of publishing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was offered and accepted the position of editorial secretary.

Thus began a nearly forty-year career in art museum publishing, an extremely demanding, high-pressured, yet deeply rewarding world. Most publications are exhibition-driven, with relentless and unyielding deadlines. Hours are long; pay is low. International museum politics are complex.  Colleagues such as authors, designers, translators, photographers, and printers span the globe, which means needing to figure out how to move nimbly through cultures, languages, and time zones.  But, in the end, I like to think that I contributed at least something to sustain the internationally recognized reputation of the publications of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Throughout the years, my job title and responsibilities evolved until, when my boss retired, I was named department head, a position I held for fifteen years until I retired as the William T. Ranney Director of Publishing.  As director, I was asked each year to speak to the museum’s interns about my background.  I always started by giving all credit for my career to my apprenticeship at the Institute, telling these young people that I had used the skills I learned there every single day in my museum job—-yes, every single day. And that was the truth from the moment I walked into my interview in 1977 until the moment I shut off my computer and happily walked out to retirement in 2016.

Sherry Babbitt (apprentice, 1976-77)
Philadelphia, October 2018


Stay tuned next week for part 8 of OI History: “Tales from Former Apprentices.”

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