Behind The Scenes At OHR : First Months as the Book Review Editor

In this first installment of a series going behind the scenes at OHR, in addition to overviewing her job, book review editor Nancy MacKay invites YOU, dear reader, to browse books available for review and join the OHR reviewer squad.

By Nancy MacKay

Like many OHA members, I have fond memories of browsing new titles at the OHR table at our annual conference, often selecting a book to review. I enjoyed reading the book and writing the review, but once I submitted the review I didn’t think much more about it. I didn’t think about the author of the book who might be eagerly awaiting a review, or about the readers who would be scrutinizing reviews for a class reading list or a dissertation.  And if I thought about the editor at all, it was as a friendly person greeting me at the OHR table.

It is an understatement to say that I was naïve when I began my position as book review editor nine months ago. I envisioned a scenario where I would fill my home with all the new books on oral history, distribute them to eager reviewers at the conference, and meet a lot of interesting people along the way. I soon learned that about 95% of the work of a book review editor is done behind the scenes.  Here is a short list of the tasks that make up my days.

  • keep up to date with current publications related to oral history;
  • develop relationships with publishers and their idiosyncratic ways of handling review copies;
  • request books from publishers and prod them if the books don’t show up;
  • maintain a database of reviewers and their subject interests;
  • match books to reviewers, send them a copy, and assign a deadline;
  • politely nudge reviewers who get behind with deadlines;
  • read, edit, and approve each book review;
  • prepare 20-40 reviews for each semi-annual issue by a production deadline;
  • send published reviews to the reviewer and to the publisher upon request; and
  • keep smiling along the way.

I’d like to tell you about what I’ve learned from the first nine months as OHR book review editor, and about some of my goals for the future. First, I want to acknowledge the work of my predecessors, David Caruso, John Wolford, and Valerie Yow, and their contributions to building a strong foundation for managing reviews. When Valerie Yow held the position in the early 2000s, the task was not automated and Valerie had the brilliant idea to bring books to the conference. This distribution method has continued to be a mainstay for matching books to reviewers. Though he had the role well into the 21st century, John Wolford’s tenure bridged the gap between the old and new ways. He kept  records with spreadsheets, yet occasionally received typewritten reviews sent through the US mail, which he personally had to type into a word processor.

My immediate predecessor, David Caruso, took the record keeping system to a new high by creating a relational database linking publisher, book, reviewer, and review in a system that gives a pretty good idea of what is happening with every book and every review at any point in time. The files I inherited consist of 150 publishers, 340 reviewers and 500 books, interconnected so they track steps by action date, featuring typeface that turns red if the action date is not met. All of the innovations of my predecessors have built a framework for a strong reviewing ecosystem.  These are some goals I’d like to contribute to that ecosystem:

  1. Diversify the ways to identify new publications of interest to oral historians.
  2. Review books closer to the date they are published.
  3. Give reviewers a chance to browse books and select one according to their interests.
  4. Make it easier to become a reviewer and to suggest a work for review.
  5. Work with Media Review editor to increase the number of non-print/media reviews.

We have launched a new space on this website dedicated to writing reviews for OHR, featuring links and resources for getting involved. From here, you can join our Reviewer Community by setting up a profile with your mailing address, subject interests, and availability. We invite reviewers for both book and non-print/media works and you can specify your preference. Having accurate and up-to-date information will help us keep abreast of your interests and availability.

Our list of books for review includes the titles in our offices currently available for review. If you are interested in reviewing a book, browse through the titles and fill out the form to select a title to review. Even if you aren’t interested in reviewing a book right now, browse the list to keep up with current publications in oral history.

We also welcome you to Suggest a Book or Media Work for Review, that relates to OHR‘s mission. You may suggest your own work. Though the majority of our books come from academic publishers, we welcome suggestions from any source. We do ask that works to be available in English and easily available for purchase in the United States. Non-print/media reviews include documentaries, performances, symposia, digital or physical exhibitions, websites, podcasts, radio programs, DVD components linked to books, and apps.

Please try out these new features and consider joining our community of reviewers. The quality of OHR reviews depends on the participation and expertise of our readers. Stay tuned for future posts in this series going behind the scenes of journal editing. Next month, I’ll discuss the book in book reviews.

Nancy MacKay is the book review editor and a reviewer for the Oral History Review; author of Curating Oral Histories (2nd ed., 2016), reviewed 45:1, April 2018); and the co-author with Barb Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, of the Community Oral History Toolkit (2013), reviewed 42:2, September 2015). Current research interests include community oral history, metadata for oral history, and scholarly publishing. Nancy would like to read every book she sends out for review. 

You can contact Nancy by emailing

Featured photo by Flickr user Wonderlane shared courtesy of a Creative Commons 2.0 license.