What Did I Get Myself Into?

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By Mitchell Hall

One of the more interesting projects in my career has been the publication of a new, two-volume encyclopedia, Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of U.S. Peace and Antiwar Movements.  Typically, historians work individually on research and writing projects, although some participate in occasional collaborative ventures.  I have been part of essay collections both as a contributor and as an editor, but this particular project presented an entirely new experience for me.

 An acquisitions editor whom I had worked with on a previous project contacted me with the original idea in May 2015, and after about two months of negotiation, I had a contract from the publisher.  Wanting the input and support from other scholars of the American peace movement in developing this project, I persuaded three experts to join me as consulting editors by early July.  I began by compiling a preliminary list of possible entries by reading the indexes of several key surveys and monographs in the field, ranging from the colonial era to the present.  I submitted about 900 items to my colleagues with a list of questions about how best to organize the work.  Their advice was enormously helpful, and we whittled down the list to just over 400 entries for the table of contents by late August.  The publisher accepted the list and word lengths in mid-September.  History Department office worker Gina Weare helped me put together a website for the project that potential contributors could review.

 Now all I had to do was find people to write the 90 percent of entries not claimed by my consulting editors and myself.  I wanted the highest possible quality, so I did extensive research to compile a list of experts who had published on the subjects in the table of contents, and in many cases had multiple names for a single item in case the initial person turned me down.  I sent individual emails to these scholars, asking them to write on specific topics and any additional entries they felt qualified to address.  More than fifty percent of these letters received a “no” response, although the vast majority were complimentary and encouraging.  Thankfully, this effort attracted authors for a majority of the available entries, many of whom volunteered (compensation is minimal for these types of projects) to write multiple essays.  Progress was never fast enough for me, since I was working on a deadline.

 Once I had exhausted my list of names, I ran an announcement in the newsletter of the Peace History Society, an organization I belong to, and some of whose members had participated in previous major reference works on peace and internationalism.  I was confident that this constituency would be reliable, but since I was no longer selecting people based on their specific work, but in essence asking them to select my project, I now asked for a vita to accompany letters of interest.  By insisting that writers be acquainted with primary source research on their proposed topics, I may have cost myself a few good contributors, but if I was going to make a mistake, I wanted to err on the side of caution.  This plea brought an additional influx of enthusiastic and expert scholars.

 With additional entries still unclaimed, my last solicitation was a general call for contributors via H-Net.  This was more of a risk because the audience was so broad, but I carefully read the attached vitas and added several first-rate writers who covered a number of valuable entries.  Even with this, a significant number of important subjects remained unclaimed, so I invited (some might say begged) some of my contributors who had already completed their commitments to write additional essays.  I was most gratified that a few sacrificed time and energy to help reach the target.  The encyclopedia eventually included over 130 contributors.

 During the process, I added a handful of entries at the suggestion of contributors and dropped a few that no longer seemed appropriate or contained too much overlap.  We ended up with 375 entries, but because I could be more flexible with essay length, the project ended well within the expected word range.  The majority of the essays were quite good, edited primarily for consistent style, but a handful required extensive revising.  Most authors were conscientious, but I spent a good amount of time gently reminding people of missed deadlines.  Perhaps a half-dozen or more made commitments then promptly disappeared and stopped communicating.  I was able to adjust to these various problems and produce what I believe is an excellent reference work.

 My responsibilities included writing an introductory essay and preface, compiling a bibliography, building a chronology and guide to related topics, and, of course, editing.  After completing those tasks, with numerous important entries still unclaimed, I jumped into researching and writing as many essays as time permitted.  I originally committed to writing 11 entries, all related to the Vietnam War era, but ended with 33 essays at over 30,000 words.  Learning about various subjects outside my comfort zone was a great education, and perhaps the most exciting part of the entire effort.  This ended up being a 2 ½ year project with numerous challenges and unexpected twists, but I made lots of new professional acquaintances and found the process to be extremely rewarding.  For anyone interested in more information, I would be happy to have a more extensive informal conversation.