An interview with Joseph Smith Papers editors: Part 1 of 2

Mark Ashurst-McGee and Robin Jensen, both volume editors of The Joseph Smith Papers, were kind enough to answer a few questions about their work and the project generally. I thank them for their participation.

Stapley: Often when discussing The Joseph Smith Papers, there is the tendency to think about it as an institution and not as a collaborative effort between individuals. Would you mind telling us about how you came to work with project? What are your backgrounds?

Mark: I studied at Brigham Young University (B.S.), Utah State University (M.A.),and Arizona State University (Ph.D.). While an undergraduate at BYU, I worked as a research assistant at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History. In graduate school I studied American and Latin American history, with some focus in my work on religious history, early Mormon history, and Joseph Smith. I remained connected with the Smith Institute and was recruited to the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) after taking my qualifying exams.

Robin: While a history graduate student at BYU, I worked as a research assistant for Richard Lloyd Anderson. One semester, I needed a few more hours and hearing about the exciting things going on down the hall in the JSPP offices, I was happy to finagle another job and began working as an RA for the JSPP in 2002. The project’s move from the Joseph Fielding Institute for Latter-day Saint History to the Church History department at the LDS Church coincided with my graduation in 2005; and they brought me on board as a full-time employee. In addition to the MA I earned at BYU, I’m earning an MLIS (Master’s of Library and Information Science) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a concentration in Archival Studies.

Stapley: History is often an area of single author monographs. With whom do you work on a day to day basis and how do you manage the collaborative effort? Are there certain tools designed to facilitate this interaction? How do you divide the labor?

Mark: This is indeed a challenge. The historical profession generally does not encourage teamwork. Much more often than not the historian is a lone wolf stalking its prey. And we don’t all agree on everything. A project like this, however, demands cooperation. Each volume is produced by a team of people. But more than this, the various volume teams have to be on the same page. The final 30-volume product needs to have basically the same textual and annotational policies applied throughout, or they will not be as usable for research. There will be intensive Joseph Smith research in the future that will rely intensively on the Joseph Smith Papers. So the researcher conducting such work should be able to pull down any volume from any series and know how to navigate the volume and understand what kinds of things are (or are not) annotated and with what kind of information. So there is the individual editor’s ego to deal with and then there are the mechanics of communication and producing consistent work. This is a challenge that we are still struggling with. But we have to keep the future user in mind. The project is for them, not us.

Robin: The project, as you know, is broken up into several different series. Each volume currently being worked on is assigned a team of volume editors who work closely in preparing those documents for publication. But the work really begins earlier than that. Document collection, initial transcription, and provenance research are done by project members whose help is critical. The volume editors then prepare the volume for publication by double-checking the transcript, researching and drafting introductions and annotation, and assisting and coordinating the other project members who work on maps, biographical material, and other tools within the volume. The transcription is triple-checked a final time against the original manuscript before it can be published. A production editing team then ensures we’re consistent in our editorial styles, source checks and proofreads the volumes, and arranges the million other things that need to happen before publication. We’re also working with web-designers, photographers, archivists, and technology specialists who help us with our lofty plans of branching out to the web. My specific roles include being a co-volume editor for the first volume of the Revelations and Translations series, 3rd level verifier of the transcriptions, and document specialist. Our team is fairly complex (enough to need a project manager), but I feel we work together in a productive manner working off each other’s strengths and shoring up our weaknesses.

Stapley I know that the document work you do is an area of specialization. What sort of training did you go through? Does everyone go through such training? How beneficial has this been? It also seems like you need to be experts in Mormon historiography. Was there special training in this area as well?

Mark: I had little interest in documentary editing before hiring on with the Joseph Smith Papers. I had published edited documents in the BYU Studies “Documents Corner,” but I really didn’t know what I was doing. The fact is that most historians know little or nothing about the specialized field of documentary editing. You can get away with it on a small scale, like the things we have seen heretofore in Mormon history publishing. But a multi-volume, multi-series edition for someone of Smith’s importance calls for the kind of expertise practiced by the editors of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the other major “founding fathers” editions, and the other professional documentary editing outfits like the Edison, Goldman, King, Sanger, and Twain editions. When I hired on with the Smith Papers, I was instructed to study Mary-Jo Kline’s Guide to Documentary Editing and Stevens’ and Burg’s Editing Historical Documents. These are like the Bible and the Book of Mormon, if you will, of historical documentary editing. Then the project sent me to the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents, an intensive week-long program run out of the University of Wisconsin—Madison. I joined the Association of Documentary Editors, began attending the annual conference, and began reading the journal Documentary Editing. The project has sent most of its historical editors to the Institute and sends a regular contingent to the ADE meetings. The project also holds a weekly “roundtable” for both historical and editorial professional development. In the roundtable we are currently conducting an intensive review of the brand new 3rd edition of Kline’s Guide to Documentary Editing. The foundation of any large edition is the document “control file.” Our project archivist Jeff Johnson and some other members of our project have advanced training and/or certification in archival studies/practice. Johnson served as the Utah State Archivist for fourteen years. But the project covers more ground than even most of the professional documentary editions. The project has a team of professional genealogists, affiliated with ICAPGen and the APG, who research and assemble the biographical directories that will be found in the backs of most volumes. We have created our maps in cooperation with Geographer Brandon Plewe and the BYU cartography lab. The production editors have advanced degrees in English. We have computer engineers developing the website. It’s exciting to be a part of a project that brings these various specializations together.

Robin: I consider my training to be a mix of traditional schooling, crash-course on-the-job training, and the best apprenticeship that I know of. I would stress many things about the JSPP, but one high on the list is that there are several different hats we wear as we do our work. As a historian, I’m trained to weigh sources, ask probing questions of those sources, and reconstruct, to the best of my ability, the past. As an archivist, I am trained to research provenance of particular documents and to understand the record keeping culture and practices of early Mormons. My documentary editing hat is a mix of those two. I still have to weigh the validity of sources in order to introduce the document to the readers, but I’m not asked to pick and choose the parts of the document to publish. We are creating a reference volume–in essence; we present the full documents for scholars to do their own research. In addition to my general training at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents, my current understanding of early Mormon documents has been greatly enhanced by the mentorship of Dean Jessee. Dean is one of the most careful scholars I know and what’s more, he is more than happy to take time to discuss documents, provenance research, handwriting identification, and a number of other critical elements of document analysis. Another mentor I enjoy working with is a tremendous scholar in her own right: Christy Best. Other than Dean, I don’t know of anyone more familiar with document analysis than Christy. Mark Ashurst-McGee and I also spend hours discussing documents, editorial complexities, and all things relating to our work. I can’t begin to imagine what we would do without those who have already done so much of the groundbreaking work.

Stapley: All the hard work on getting Journals 1 published appears to have been well received. Distributors are taking back orders on the third printing in as many months. Was this traction a surprise for the Papers team? Do you know if future volumes will receive similar marketing pushes? Or was this first volume special? Did the inaugural launch mean anything special for you personally?

Mark: We were both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised – happy to sell so many so quickly and frustrated that we ran out of books during the initial excitement (and Christmas market). We anticipate that the journal series—a three volume series—will sell very well among the Latter-day Saint community. We expect that other series, like the Legal and Business volumes, will not sell as many copies—although this series will have the most original historiographical contributions to Joseph Smith scholarship! There are only a few hundred major research libraries in the English-speaking world. This is where most scholars will use the full multi-series edition. Because our principle aim is to facilitate the quality and quantity of Joseph Smith scholarship, these research libraries are our primary target. And yet this only accounts for a few hundred sales. Most documentary editions – even the founding fathers projects – have a print run of about 1000. The fact that we have already sold over twenty thousand copies in the Mormon book market is a testament to how much the Latter-day Saints care about their history. It’s an exciting outcome for me personally.

Robin: I am thrilled to see the successful sales of the first volume. It is a tribute to the vitality of Mormon Studies. With respect to future sales, I take a realistic position: this first volume will most likely be our best seller. After the eight, twelfth, or nineteenth volume, the excitement will wear off; it’s simply the nature of this endeavor. I am quite certain we will continue to promote them, both more widely among Mormon audiences and among scholars and libraries. In saying all this, I want to make it clear that I won’t consider the project successful until we get the word out to scholars. When a seasoned scholar turns for the first time to a Mormon topic and knows that she will find a wonderful starting place in the Joseph Smith Papers at her university library, I will consider our project successful.

Next up: Some fun digging into what is and isn’t included in the Papers and how it is all organized.


  1. Thanks, J.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    This is excellent stuff, J. Thanks to Mark and Robin for being so clear and so forthcoming in replies.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for doing this interview, J., Mark and Robin. Interesting stuff.

    So far all I have is a printout of the Amazon page that was under the tree on Christmas morning. No actual book yet for me. I’m looking forward to actually seeing it.

  4. Thanks, J., Mark, and Robin.

  5. Great stuff, all.

  6. Eat your heart out, Kevin Barney. I lucked out and got a second printing copy about 4 weeks ago, and am up to March of 1836, and the beginning of the events surrounding the completion of the Kirtland Temple.

    Good interview, J., Mark, and Robin. I’ve enjoyed every page so far, and I appreciate that the footnotes really are footnotes, and not buried at the back of the book. The biographical abstracts have also been helpful. I can’t see me getting all 30 volumes, but certainly can see me picking up several more of the upcoming volumes.

  7. Cool post.

  8. Thanks, J. This kind of Q&A for this project isn’t likely to appear anywhere else.

  9. Ardis, you mean, like, Times and Seasons?

  10. Hey, I’ve gotten a verbal commitment from Robin that he’ll doing something like this for the JI when we get closer to seeing R1, so BCC (and T&S) don’t have a monopoly.

  11. Mark Brown says:

    Very well done, everyone. Thanks J., Mark, and Robin.

  12. Steve Evans says:

    David, if Robin didn’t sign on the dotted line don’t trust him — we have a BCC lifetime exclusive, in exchange for filthy lucre.

  13. Great interview. Thanks to the JSP folks for making themselves available to us out here in the pixels.

  14. Wonderful interview. Thanks, everyone.

  15. Next up: Some fun digging into what is and isn’t included in the Papers and how it is all organized.

    With respect to the JSP, this is the key to the entire endeavor.

    From my casusal persepctive, both Mormon apologia and Anti-Mormon rhetoric are highly prone to silently omit, discard, or neglect to include troublesome or contradictory historical facts.

    Often a scholar will omit material based on his or her opinion that such material does not rise to acceptable levles of credibility or relevance. I have no problem with this – each is entitled to his or her point of view and opinion. None of this is unique to Mormonology. And furthemore, an historian has a right/duty to interpret as he or she sees fit.

    Perhaps my discontent and skepticism is somewhat exacerbated by the long tale of deliberate anti-mormon distortion on one hand and (what often appears to me, other’s milage may vary) the “no contradictions in Zion” and image at all costs zeal of LDS apologists and defenders.

    * For the JSP, how will a reader know what is omitted?

    * Will the editors disclose known writings and records of Joseph Smith that have not been included in the JSP?

    * Will the full and complete texts of “as penned” revelations be printed, as originally penned?

    * Will uncanonized revelations be printed?

    * Other than a flat out hands-off declaration, how will a reader be comfortable that there is no agreement (written or unwritten, direct or indirect) between the editors and the LDS church regarding inclusion or exclusion of material in possession or controlled by the church? (I am aware that the church has alread indicated that some records may/will not be made available to the JSP. I understand that these records have been already disclosed.)

    * Since the JSP is planned to require a great many years to complete and may span the tenure of several LDS church presidents, how will a reader know that what one church president finds to be an acceptable level of candor and participation — another (i.e., a later) church president may find unacceptable? Will the editors disclose any such changes?

    * Does the JSP contain a written (and published) editorial policy that sets forth the standards, procedures, and controls that will be adhered to to prevent inappropriate entanglement (direct or indirect) from any party?

    I realize that the above list has a rather negative and, to some, an unnecessarily suspicious tone. Perhaps so.

    I am not a scholar and perhaps my questions for this undertaking are over-the-top for works such as this.

    My inquiries may appear to question the integrity of the able and dedicated editors. I do not raise these questions for anything of the sort.


  16. To answer some of your questions earl (as well, see part 2):

    First, it is important to realize that there isn’t a secret cache of Joseph Smith documents that people don’t know about. The JSP have done a lot of work to locate previously unknown documents (this is most evident, I understand, in the legal papers). The 1832 revelations manuscript is an example of the First Presidency handing stuff from their vault over. Otherwise, scholars mostly have known what documents are where. Consequently, the Papers with its professional and non-Mormon board are not only ethically required, but constrained by popular oversight not to jerk around with the documents. As was discussed in part 2, the project is taking a fairly liberal approach in classification.

    Now personally, for example, I think they should include the entire KEP. However, even if they don’t include the whole thing (which decision is rational and defensible) two other groups are publishing the KEP in the next years, so it isn’t as if they are secret. I think the C50 minutes are the real clincher, but I am hopeful that they will publish them when the time comes.

    As to your questions regarding revelations, see part 2. As to your conspiratorial overtures, I think you should follow the links in my J1 review that discuss accreditation.

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