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How Spencer McBride Does History

Historians in the News
tags: archives, Joseph Smith, primary sources, Latter Day Saints, Mormon Church



Editor’s note: This is the tenth entry in a series on how historians—especially contingent historians and those employed outside of tenure-track academia—do the work of history. If you know of someone we should interview, or would like to be interviewed yourself, send an email with the subject line HOW I DO HISTORY to pitches@contingentmag.org.

Spencer W. McBride (@SpencerWMcBride on Twitter) is a documentary editor and historian of U.S. religion and political culture. Here’s how he does history.

 

What’s your current position? How long have you worked there and is this your first connection with the organization? 

I am an Associate Managing Historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. I have been with this project for six years. I started in 2014, just one month after I finished my PhD. While I had enjoyed perusing the Joseph Smith Papers for research purposes, or just out of curiosity, I had no connection with the project prior to applying for an open historian position.

Tell our readers what a typical day or week of work is like for you. Is there such a thing as a typical day for you? 

I have found that in documentary editing there isn’t really a typical day. A lot of it depends on where we are as a team on the process of preparing a volume of documents for publication. So, if we are in the early stages of the process, I spend a lot of time with document control (identifying and organizing all surviving Joseph Smith documents in a certain time period) and transcript verification (working with the original document to make sure that our transcripts are accurate). These tasks can be tedious at times, but they are essential and there is still a thrill in working so closely with original historical documents.

Then, as we get further along in the publishing process, I research each document assigned to me so that I can write a brief historical introduction explaining its creation, transmission, and reception. This process also includes writing footnotes to explain references in the text or to identify people, places, and events that it mentions. Sometimes this requires me to dive deep into a subject I know little about for just one footnote! And I often enjoy that. For example, in a recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers there is an 1842 letter in response to a correspondent who mulled over potential materials that could be used to build the roof of the temple the Latter-day Saints were building in Nauvoo, Illinois. He proposed using tin and suggested possible places to obtain that material, including Cornwall, England. I knew little about tin mining and tin prices in the 1840s, but after a fascinating few hours I had done enough research on this subject to write a footnote to help researchers using this volume to better contextualize the conversation preserved in these letters.

 

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