How Sara Georgini Does History with the John Adams PapersHistorians in the News
tags: archives, John Adams, primary sources
Editor’s note: This is the twenty-fifth 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 email@example.com.
Sara Georgini (@sarageorgini on Twitter) is a public historian and series editor for The Papers of John Adams. Here’s how she does history.
What’s your current position? How long have you worked there?
I am the Series Editor of The Papers of John Adams, part of the Adams Papers editorial project based at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in Boston, where I have worked since 2008. I spent many joyful hours in the reading room scouring rare church records for my master’s thesis on revolutionary Anglicans, and when I heard of a job opening here, I leapt at it. Public history is my passion. Our goal at the Adams Papers is to bring people into dialogue with the past through primary sources. The Adams Papers comprise a quarter of a million manuscript pages, or 608 microfilm reels—all open for research onsite and online. We have the incredible opportunity to show and tell ten generations’ worth of the American experience, from the Declaration to disunion. The Adamses wrote for the archive, always hoping to be heard. Plus, they operated at the heart of American political and cultural power for more than two centuries. Curious and cosmopolitan, the globetrotting Adams family offers a backstage pass to American history.
Tell us about the MHS, the work it does and the people there.
The MHS is the nation’s first historical society, created in 1791 as a way to preserve early American manuscripts and artifacts relating to the Revolution. And then we kept on collecting, preserving, and communicating what we discovered. It’s a welcoming scholarly home to many. One of the many perks is that I see my fellow scholars as their projects grow and change, from that first call slip to a full-blown book talk. My MHS colleagues are endlessly curious about the treasures under this roof and always eager to share their finds. It’s real ensemble work, too. Psst, graduate programs: Sing the praises of humanities teamwork; good collaboration is a key skill. At MHS we have a steady symphony of work afoot in our public programs, donor events, new publications, researcher assistance, digital projects, National History Day support, and much more. Clocking in at MHS means taking to heart the American Historical Association’s terrific credo to broaden the definition of historical scholarship while nurturing engagement with diverse audiences. We think a lot about voices and choices: who “gets” to tell a narrative, and why. We also have the chance to change it, so finding and cultivating new interpretations is a daily goal.
You’re the Series Editor for the Adams Papers Editorial Project. What does a Series Editor do and tell us about the Adams Papers? Why should scholars consult this source?
My job as Series Editor is to lead the research, writing, and production of every Papers of John Adams volume, every year. Here’s an inside look at our process. We’re currently in the Adams presidency (no spoilers, please!) so we’re focused on thinking about the relationship between executive and popular power. As we move from manuscript to book, we 1) create an authoritative transcription for scholars 2) provide annotation that puts peoples, places, and events in historical context and 3) make it all accessible through a clear, cogent index. We publish the diaries, letters, and papers of John and Abigail Adams and their descendants. But that’s not all. Our volumes chart changes in U.S.-Indigenous relations, foreign affairs, gender roles, and partisan politics. When the project began in the 1950s, editor Lyman H. Butterfield and his colleagues thought that making the papers available would set “a new north” for scholars. We still make that a main part of our mission, and we love to hear how people use the archives.