Learning to "Do History": Lessons in Collaborative Research and Writing

I have been involved with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative since January of 2018 and have had the opportunity to be involved in may different projects. Most of the writing I’ve been asked to do has been very independent (minus a few edits in post-production). Over the past year, however, I was able to contribute to an article for DHI’s issue of the Pennsylvania History Journal. It’s based on the lives and relationships of two influential reformers involved in the City Beautiful movement: Mira Lloyd Dock and J. Horace McFarland. My co-author Anna Strange and I aimed to highlight their personal relationship through an exploration of their correspondence during and after the movement, showing how it shaped their ability to enact reform.

A project which ended up taking over a year to complete, this article was my first experience with a professionally published project. It has been invaluable to my development as a public historian, teaching me the true value of multiple perspectives and how they inform how history is written.

A letter from J. Horace McFarland to Mira Lloyd Dock about a political opponent during the City Beautiful movement. (Pennsylvania State Archive MG043, Box 6)

Here are just some things I learned through this project that hopefully will be helpful to other young public history majors looking to start their trade:

Flexibility is key: When Anna S and I set out on this project, we had a brief outline of what the whole issue would look like but not much direction. As time passed, our original proposal no longer matched the research we had compiled. By no means did this mean we were going in the wrong direction. Instead it gave us a new perspective to write from. The article changed form so many times simply because new information was discovered or a different angle was brought to our attention. Additionally, about half way through the process of writing, we had to change both the length and topic of the essay to better match the rest of the issue. After the first few drafts it became apparent that flexibility was key to creating a cohesive essay. Keeping your mind open to new possibilities allows you to find the best thesis possible.

Letter showing the amiable relationship between Dock and McFarland (Pennsylvania State Archive MG043, Box 5)

Multiple Perspectives are needed: When working on a project, especially one where you are acquainted with most of your collaborators, you have to be prepared to include multiple voices in your writing. This can be applicable to anything, whether a written article or an exhibit design. Sometimes it can be daunting when you have so many people trying to contribute to your project. Everyone has different writing methods, aesthetic tastes, and visions for what they think the final product should look like. The trick is to be able to combine all of these. Anna and I were already trying to balance each other’s voices within the article, but then had to compete with the voices of many different editors.

Letter sent from Dock to McFarland about her frustration with resistance to reform. (Pennsylvania State Archive MG043, Box 5)

At first, it was difficult because we didn’t always agree on what should be kept in the article and what should be cut. Wording for certain sentences was pleasing to one person but not so for others. The images we picked made sense with one draft, but had to be changed constantly to comply with new edits. Much like the reformers we were writing about, we couldn’t seem to come to a consensus on which way to proceed. It was hard to understand during the process of writing where all of these changes would fit. Looking back on it now, though, I realize just how important these viewpoints were. Like Dock and McFarland who used their differences to reach different groups of people, the voices which contributed to our article helped to create a more complete story. Other people see things differently than you do, and they can bring something new to the table that you may not have seen. Having multiple perspectives contribute to a project invites collaboration and helps to strengthen its effectiveness.

Try, try again: After being involved with several different projects for Digital Harrisburg and the Center for Public Humanities, I’ve learned that public history projects take many tries to make them ready for publication. Writing, especially, is an iterative process: it takes multiple attempts to get it right. Early on, this article began to frustrate Anna and me because we couldn’t seem to develop a narrative that flowed. We had done hours of research and had so much to say, but trying to synthesize that information into just 1500 words proved pretty daunting. For someone who is used to reading over a paper once or twice before submitting, I felt like I was failing because we had to continue revising.

Letter from McFarland to Dock encouraging her to continue pushing for reform despite what seems like failure. (Pennsylvania State Archive MG043, Box 5)

But this was far from the truth. Working on this article proved a formative experience for me. Not only was it an opportunity to have a published work, but it was also a lesson in synthesis and brevity. Regardless of how many edits, re-writes, criticisms, and other changes it went through, we were still able to produce a unique historical piece of writing that hopefully will bring attention to the City Beautiful reform movement. In a letter he wrote to Dock nearing the end of their lives, McFarland wrote the following as an encouragement: “It is part of our actual Christian democratic freedom that we should go wrong part of the time…Yet all the time when we swing back we are a little wiser, a littler better, a little cleaner.” (see above image) Just because we have to continue refining something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the time.

I hope these insights are helpful to anyone who is looking to become a public historian but is not sure where to begin. I wasn’t sure what this project would entail when I decided to take it on. However, it has been one of the first experiences I’ve had that truly tested my ability to present history to a public audience. More than anything else, I want to emphasize the collaborative nature of public history projects. The voices of your subjects of study, your audience, and all the contributors are involved in the creation of history. It’s the public historian’s job to listen to all of them and find a compromise which presents true history in a way people can easily understand.

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