Serving two masters: Questions of audience at the Joseph Smith Documentary Editing Project (Part 2)

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fish ladder

Fish ladder constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers at Bonneville Dam, Columbia River (Photo: Eric Guinther,

In my years as a historical consultant, I did several projects for agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Much like the church for which I now work, these agencies are interested in their past, but also are sensitive to criticisms that have been levied against them by opposing groups, such as environmental organizations. Producing a history that was acceptable to the agencies’ leadership and also true to the standards of historical scholarship was sometimes a challenge.

Recognizing that such pressures exist for public historians, the National Council on Public History developed ethical guidelines in 1986 (significantly revised in 2007) to help practitioners maintain their professional integrity. According to these guidelines, “High standards of professional integrity, knowledge, and proficiency are the hallmarks of excellence in public history.” Therefore, “public historians should carry out historical research and present historical evidence with integrity.” Exactly what that meant was explained by the American Historical Association. According to its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, “practicing history with integrity does not mean being neutral or having no point of view.” Instead, historians should understand and acknowledge that “all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience.” Because of this, the statement continued, it is especially important to provide “multiple, conflicting perspectives” when writing history.

This is certainly true when completing histories for disparate audiences. Other public historians have noted the difficulties they have had when writing histories under contract that were intended both for a client and for a larger audience. These historians—perhaps following the counsel of the NCPH and AHA—have attempted to provide “multiple, conflicting perspectives” so that a balanced, fair history results. For example, Lisa Mighetto, then a historian with Historical Research Associates, Inc., co-authored a study entitled Saving the Salmon: A History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Role in Protecting Anadromous Fish on the Columbia and Snake Rivers for the Corps in 1994. This history, according to Douglas Arndt, a senior program manager for the Corps’ Columbia River salmon program, was intended “to provide a better corporate memory” for Corps employees about their salmon work, as well as to educate the general public about how the Corps had tried to protect salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers.[1]

In discussing her work on this history, Mighetto noted that “[t]he use and protection of salmon are loaded, highly controversial issues,” especially when it involves the Corps—an agency that many environmentalists consider “an opportunistic, expansive agency with no sympathy for those who value salmon, let alone for the fish.” In the course of her research she found that the Corps had indeed implemented measures to minimize adverse impacts to salmon from dams and other structures in the rivers, but many were unwilling to perceive the Corps as anything except an environmental destroyer.

How, then, could she write a history paid for by the Corps to an audience that was largely hostile toward her client? One way was to present information from both sides, thereby acknowledging the differing perspectives. Another way was to try to be as unbiased as possible in her writing. “While I do not believe that complete objectivity is possible, especially when a historian is confronted with a complex and emotional topic,” Mighetto explained, “my goal was to present the results of our research in as balanced a manner as possible.” By doing so, Mighetto ensured that her history could pass scholarly muster while also appealing to her client and to the broader interested public. Her “integrity and credibility as a historian,” she declared, was “retained.”[2]

This project provides a good example of how to write scholarly history for disparate audiences, even when the histories come at the request of a constituency that has a particular perspective on a historical issue. After beginning work at the Joseph Smith Papers project, I realized that the experiences of other consultants, coupled with my own personal experiences, would serve me well as I tried to provide historical context and annotation for Joseph Smith documents. Although understanding, as one documentary editor explained, that “historical records are not objective representations of the past and editors are not neutral or disinterested judges,”[3] my colleagues and I were committed to telling the story from as unbiased and neutral perspective as we could, acknowledging that others do not accept Joseph Smith’s claims that he was a prophet of God. Even many of our church leaders, who are not historians, understand that our project could not have credibility with most scholars if it did not include perspectives of Joseph Smith that differed from the church’s views.

Several examples exist of the measures the project takes to try to retain balance. One is the types of sources that we use in our annotation. Because few of Smith’s own records are extant, especially for Smith’s boyhood and youth and the early years of the church’s founding, we often have to go to outside sources for information about his life during these years. Many of these are written by individuals who considered Smith a charlatan. Yet once one gets past the vitriol of these sources, one finds useful information that helps illuminate the documents we are producing. Although most church members would regard such sources as “anti-Mormon,” they are valuable tools to reconstruct early Mormon history, while also presenting perspectives of Smith that are not present in his existing papers. The end result is a more well-rounded history.

In addition to sources, we are careful with the type of language we employ. Most members of the church refer to Smith by his first name, “Joseph,” a manifestation of their feeling of religious brotherhood with Smith, or as “the Prophet,” evidence of the respect with which they regard him. The project, however, understands that it is highly unusual for scholarly histories to refer to subjects in these informal ways. It is difficult, for example, to imagine a respectable history of George Washington referring to him as “George” or “the father of our nation.” To solve this issue, we generally refer to Smith by his initials throughout the volume, following the standard convention in documentary editing; the papers of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others refer to their subjects as “GW,” “TJ,” and so forth.

Yet how have the various audiences to whom the Smith Papers are directed received our products? The next and final installment will examine this question.

~ Matthew C. Godfrey is Associate Managing Historian for the Joseph Smith Papers.

Read Part 1 of the series here.


[1] Douglas P. Arndt, “A Client’s Commentary: How Saving the Salmon Will Serve the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Public,” The Public Historian 17 (Fall 1995): 30.
[2] Lisa Mighetto, “Salmon, Science, and Politics: Writing History for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” The Public Historian 17 (Fall 1995): 20.
[3] Esther Katz, “The Editor as Public Authority: Interpreting Margaret Sanger,” The Public Historian 17 (Winter 1995): 50.