INTERVIEW—Joan Vandegrift: On the Occasion of Her 30th Anniversary as Manuscript Editor to Isis

by Desiree Capel, Isis Managing Editor

JoanLast year, during the first HSS annual meeting since Isis had moved to Utrecht, The Netherlands, we were notified that 2015 would be the year our Manuscript Editor Joan Vandegrift would celebrate her 30th anniversary with the journal. Since we could not let this event pass unnoticed, we invited Joan to tell us something about her experiences over the past three decades. A lot of things have changed over the years, and we thought it would be interesting to know how the manuscript editing of Isis has evolved. Of course we already knew about Joan’s excellent work to get all manuscripts, book reviews and other contributions to Isis in the best possible shape. We also realized that Joan is the only person who reads Isis literally from cover to cover, not once, but multiple times. First, during the editing process, where she often contacts the author for further clarification or to discuss matters, and then one more time during the proofreading phase. It is fair to say that Joan is the most experienced reader of Isis in the entire world. Someone who is so special for Isis, and who has so much experience, deserves to be put in the spotlight. Therefore we arranged for this interview, to which Joan fortunately agreed.

Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed about your job as Manuscript Editor of Isis. I think it is very special that one person has been working for so long as the Manuscript Editor. There must be something about your job that you really enjoy. Can you tell us what that is?

I especially like the wide variety of fields and topics Isis covers. Even now, thirty years in, I still get to read about things that are completely new to me. I’ve also been fortunate to work for a series of appreciative editors and – especially in the years after the office at the University of Pennsylvania closed down – with some very capable and personable managing editors who have been genuine colleagues despite the distances between our offices.

Having read more than 120 entire issues of Isis, it is fair to say you have become a real history of science expert. But what is your own background? Is that also in history?

I was a double major in English and history as an undergraduate. I did a master’s in comparative literature at Chicago. I’d agree that, after all this time, I know a little about a lot of topics in history of science. But expertise—no!

You started working for Isis in September 1985, but before that time you already worked as a freelancer for Isis, so you are actually celebrating your 30+ anniversary. How did you come to work for Isis?

When my husband and I moved to Swarthmore in 1982, I looked for some kind of publishing work in the Philadelphia area. There wasn’t much going on apart from medical publishing, and I ended up taking a job with W.B. Saunders. One of the people I worked with there was a young woman who had just graduated from Penn. She had had a work study job in the Isis office, and – after we got to know each other and she learned that I had worked at the University of Chicago Press – she offered to introduce me to Frances Kohler and the rest of the Isis folks. Frances was always on the lookout for people who were (or might become!) good editors, so after we talked she sent me home with some freelance work. After my daughters went off to part-time day care at the age of sixteen months, in September 1985, I started coming into the Isis office three days a week.

You really know a lot about the history of science in general. Have you ever considered becoming a professional history of science scholar yourself?

Oh, NO! I’m not a scholar, and I find writing a very laborious process. Definitely not for me!

So we may perhaps describe you as someone with a very broad knowledge of the history of science, which covers not only topics that have been treated in Isis, but also knowledge of many other publications and sources. This must be very helpful in your work as Manuscript Editor. Some people, who have not had the pleasure of working with you may think your work is limited to the mere polishing of the English language, but you do far more than that. Have you done so from the start, or is this something you took on because your experience with the history of science had increased?

I was very lucky that Frances Kohler, who was in charge of Isis and all other HSS publications when I first started with the journal, took a very wide view of the job and encouraged everyone who worked with her to do the same. Frances was a marvelous editor, and she made a point of hiring women with young kids who wanted to do serious intellectual work for a respectable part‐time salary. I was hired as a copy editor, but she encouraged the people she worked with to think about what we were reading: of course you were supposed to catch the typos, but if you found a problem with the argument you were encouraged to mention that too. Frances always pointed out that Isis has a wide and varied readership, so if something seemed unclear to us as editors it would quite likely be unclear to many subscribers as well. That said, I always aim when editing a manuscript to respect the author’s voice, not impose my own. A good writer does not always make a good editor, because as an editor you have to let go of your own style and try to maintain the style of the author. If I do a really good job on a piece, my work should be invisible to anyone other than the author and myself.

Many journals are typeset according to a particular style, like the APA, MLA, or Chicago style. Isis, however, has its own particular style. Has this been the same over the years you have worked for Isis? Do you know who introduced this style?

Somewhere in my desk there is an Isis style booklet – actual words on paper – that runs to ten or twelve pages. I don’t know where it came from, but it wasn’t original with me. I was given a copy when I first started working in the office, and I have the impression that it had been produced fairly recently – but I could be wrong about that. Some things just make life simpler: for example, we follow the first spelling of a word listed in the latest edition of Webster – not because the second spelling (say) is wrong but because the rule makes it easier to be consistent. And some things have changed: that style sheet has a list of guidelines for citing archival material, for example, but I’ve found that the elements vary so much that it isn’t always sensible to strive for consistency. Our style was, broadly, based on the Chicago Manual of Style—but we have not kept up as it has evolved over the years.

A lot of things must have changed since 1985. What did an average working day look like back then, and what has changed since those early years?

Well, even then it began – for me – with a cup of coffee. In 1985 I sat down at my desk with a stack of paper and a good supply of sharp pencils; nowadays I settle in front of my computer screens. The actual process of thinking about and fiddling with the text hasn’t changed very much. Like all manuscript editors, I do something akin to typesetting now: if I should happen to tap the space bar twice between sentences or neglect to remove a bit of underlining in the text, it shows up that way in proof. Sometimes I miss being able to write a blanket covering note to the typesetter – “Compositor: Please follow editor’s markup rather than manuscript presentation” – and going on my merry way.

On the other hand, I do NOT miss having to send manuscripts to authors and the Press by mail! Since edited manuscripts could get lost in transit, I photocopied every essay before letting it out of my hands. This has rescued my work more than once. Manuscripts went out in large envelopes, with lots of stamps on them, which had to be dropped off at the post office. And before we had digital files, most figures were black-and-white glossy photographs, sometimes originals borrowed from museums. What if one of these got lost somewhere—or bent or stained or spoiled? Clearly, then, in some respects my life has become much easier now that everything is in digital format and can be sent via email.

Many readers may not be aware of the fact that you also compose the annual index that is published in the December issue. The change from “only paper” to “mainly computer” must also have affected the way you compose the annual index. How did you do that in those early years, and how do you handle this nowadays?

When I started with Isis, the index was first compiled on file cards, one per entry. So, for example, an essay with two authors that included a name in the title would have four cards: a title card, two author cards, and a card for the named individual. Eventually someone (sometimes me, sometimes not) would go through and alphabetize the cards; then the entries would be typed up as an alphabetized list by Frances’s assistant or one of the secretaries. Several stages of proofreading and correction ensued, with entries being combined as necessary (the name of an author who had contributed an essay and two book reviews, for example, would initially have three card entries; in the finished index, he or she would have just one entry, with all three elements included). In the next phase, the index was compiled electronically—but with all kinds of complicated coding. Here’s what an entry from the December 2005 index would have looked like when it went to the printer:

Casanova, Giacomo, <itl>Lana caprina: Une controverse m<aa>edicale sur l’Ut<aa>erus pensant <ag>a l’Universit<aa>e de
Bologne en 1771<end>1772<ro>, ed. by Paul Mengal, trans. by Roberto Proma, rev., 108.

You can imagine how long it took to type up an entire volume year’s worth of entries! And the proofreading!

Here’s what the same entry would look like now:

Casanova, Giacomo, Lana caprina: Une controverse médicale sur l’Utérus pensant à l’Université de Bologne en 1771–1772, ed.
by Paul Mengal, trans. by Roberto Proma, rev., 108.

MUCH simpler, no?

Do you always contact all authors of Isis articles, or do you contact authors only incidentally?

Every article and Focus author gets to see the edited manuscript of his or her essay. Occasionally I’ll send a piece back more than once, if the author’s changes have been extensive or if I’m unclear about something. I send out book reviews only occasionally, if I’m really unsure about something.

The Isis editorial office has been in Utrecht, The Netherlands, since 1 July 2014. Your name looks like a typical Dutch or Flemish name (in Dutch you would write Van de Grift). Do your ancestors indeed come from Belgium or The Netherlands?

My father’s family came from the Netherlands. Family lore (how reliable, I cannot say!) has it that three brothers – Robert, John, and Peter – came with Peter Stuyvesant. They settled in New York and Pennsylvania. I don’t know when the spaces and the capital G vanished.