Historians Give Thanks

The best part of writing a book is penning the acknowledgments. Maybe that’s because it happens in the final stages of preparing a manuscript. If it’s time for the acknowledgements, you know it won’t be long until you see your work print. But compiling an index comes near the end too, and no one finds that task particularly gratifying.

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 9.19.27 PMThe acknowledgements section—usually a few pages at the front of the book—is where historians recognize they could not have done it alone. As Jon Gjerde wrote, “The premise that it takes a village to raise a child is no less true in writing a book.” Librarians and archivists marshal the sources on which we depend, institutional and individual donors fund our time and travels, colleagues critique and encourage us, and students inspire us.

Advisers loom large in acknowledgements, especially for those of us who still get to call ourselves “young” scholars. These mentors usually guided our work as graduate students, inducting us into a professional community and supporting us through inevitable periods of frustration. They took our ideas seriously, seriously enough to question and challenge. They pushed us to refine our thinking, articulate our positions better, and provide stronger evidence. Russell Kazal noted the “phenomenal” support and “boundless generosity” that he received from his team of advisers, but he identified one as “perhaps my toughest critic.”

Even more intimate relationships appear too. It used to be the long-suffering the wife who typed up handwritten notes, but today’s academic spouse lives with a book in other ways. I’ve seen historians give thanks for clean laundry and apologize for all the research trips. More often, we use acknowledgements to note that our family members debate our ideas and sustain us emotionally. One of my mentors referred his family his coauthors”; another called them his “anchor.” Parents, friends, and teachers started us down the path of scholarship that ends in books. We know it. On occasion we acknowledge it.

Yet “acknowledgement” is an insipid word for the embarrassment of gratitude you’ll find at the beginning of books such as mine. Taken as a whole, the litany of thanks reveals how privileged historians feel to engage in such meaningful work. Many budding historians never receive the institutional, professional, and personal support necessary to transform ideas into books. Those of us who do might resolve to help scholars coming up behind us. Perhaps next time I’ll end my acknowledgments with a pledge.

In the meantime, I invite you to acknowledge someone who has contributed to your work, or quote an acknowledgement that caught your imagination.

Alison Clark Efford published her first book, German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era, in 2013.


Jon Gjerde, Minds of the West, xi.

Russell Kazal, Becoming Old Stock, xiii.

Kevin Boyle, Arc of Justice, 401.

Mitchell Snay, Horace Greeley, x.


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