Behind the Scenes at OHR: The Reviewer

In the third installment of our series exploring behind the scenes at OHR, book review editor Nancy MacKay talks about what it takes to be a reviewer for the journal, along with the rewards of doing so. We always are looking for smart readers like you to take on a book or media project to review. 

By Nancy MacKay

Of all the tasks in my job as OHR book review editor, nothing gives me as much pleasure as getting to know you, the reviewers. Almost every day I interact with book reviewers who write me with a question about their book review, an apology for a late submission, or just to check in to say hello or offer a new idea. Most of them I “meet” for the first time through the email conversation. If I am lucky our paths cross at a conference and we can meet in person. Since there is no renumeration and little prestige in writing book reviews, most reviewers do it for the personal satisfaction.

Who are OHR Reviewers?

There are currently 360 reviewers in the OHR database, and around 100 are currently working on reviews. Though the vast majority are based in the US, Canada, UK and Australia, we also have reviewers from Japan, Chile, the Netherlands, Belgium and India, broadening the base of life experience and cultural perspective. Many have expertise in modern history or related areas like ethnic studies, women’s studies, or memory studies. A significant number work in professions that use oral history, such as education, library and information science, cultural heritage, museum curation, performing arts, and community activism.

Many make their professional home in academia, as graduate students (including a number of students or recent graduates of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program), professors, or directors of oral history programs within the university. Others work in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies. The final group consists of independent scholars. This wide range of reviewer expertise and experience translates to a richer experience for the reader.

Why Write Book Reviews?

In his 2011 article, “The Scholarly Book Review in the Humanities: an Academic Cinderella?” (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, Oct. 2011. p.8. doi: 10.3138/jsp.43.1.52), John East posed a logical question: “[It is] clear that the writing of a thoughtful and useful book review must be a time-consuming process (especially if the reviewer conscientiously reads the book from cover to cover). It is also clear that a published book review is not highly rated (or rated at all) as a research output. The obvious question then is, why do scholars write book reviews?”

The responses to his survey are what would be expected: I am asked to by the editor (73%); I want to inform colleagues of a new book I like (52%); I think this book will be an important contribution to the field (48%); and I think it will look good on my CV (28%).

That got me wondering how OHR reviewers would answer that question, so I put it out to a few of them. Here are some responses:

“As an oral historian and historian I believe it’s important to engage deeply with the work of other scholars. Reviewing is a way to keep on top of literature, and to be involved in the oral history community and to develop relationships with editors.”

“Reviewing hones my critical review skills. As an oral historian and historian I believe it’s important to engage deeply with the work of other scholars. Reviewing is a way to keep on top of literature, and to be involved in the oral history community and to develop relationships with editors.” Holly Werner- Thomas, Columbia University, OHR reviewer for one year. [Most recent review: The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, forthcoming, 46:1, 2019]

“I love reading and writing analytically and combining those skills is central to writing book reviews. It’s a great opportunity to apply our knowledge and passion by selecting a text within our area of interest and critically writing about the book that will, hopefully, encourage OHA readers to read it.” Daisy Herrera, California State University, Los Angeles OHR reviewer for one year. [most recent review, Latina Lives in Milwaukee, 45:2, 2018].

“Since oral history is a continually evolving discipline, it’s exciting to contribute to that development in real time, and to be an active voice in the worldwide conversation about the issues that shape it.” Bud Kliment, Columbia University. OHR reviewer for one year. [Most recent review: Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music Revivals, forthcoming 46:1, 2019]

“It’s a way to give back to OHA.” Troy Reeves, University of Wisconsin, Madison, OHR reviewer for 13 years.  [most recent review, Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting, 45:1, 2018]

“I would like to expand my intellectual horizons by reading books to review and to contribute to the community of oral historians. [Former] book review editor David Caruso asked me to review a book in my subject area and I found this connection would benefit the Japanese oral history community which is less developed than in the US.” Mari Nagatomi, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan.  OHR reviewer one year. [Most recent review: Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race Through Musical Performance, 45:2 (2018)]

“I want to take an analytical look at how authors use oral history in their study of the subject. I only review books that match my subject interests and expertise. They often become part of my personal library.” Barbara Sommer, Independent Scholar, reviewer for 20 years. [Most recent review: Politics in the Corridor of Dying: Aids Activism and Global Health Governance, forthcoming, 46:1 (2019)]

Becoming an OHR Reviewer

It is clear from the comments above that OHR reviewers are enthusiastic about reviewing and cherish the opportunity to give back to the community. The field would be diminished without book reviews, which in some circles are considered a kind of post-publication peer review.  Book reviews can have a long-term impact for the author of the book, the journal where the review appears, and the oral history field, which I will discuss in a future post. Here are four qualities that make a good reviewer:

  • Broad expertise in oral history and the subject of the book
  • Can deliver a neutral, unbiased review (i.e. has no connection to the author)
  • Can write well in an analytical style
  • Responsible, can follow writing guidelines and meet deadlines

Here are some tips and comments that seasoned reviewers have shared:

 “OHR makes it pleasant to write a book review and I highly recommend it for anyone who interested. I intended to write only one review, but now I am in it for the long run.” Daisy Herrera

“You’ll probably read the book more carefully and remember it better when you have the responsibility of reviewing it. Be diplomatic in reviewing. Constructive criticism is fine, but be sure to mention some strong points. Remember that the book you are reviewing represents a chunk of the author’s life energy, time and commitment.” Teresa Bergen, writer, oral history transcriptionist, author of the forthcoming Transcribing Oral History (Routledge, 2019). OHR reviewer for 12 years. [most recent review, Man or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, 45:1, 2018]

“Given such responsibility, I think that anyone interested in critiquing oral history efforts, in print or otherwise, should choose subjects that they know and care about, since an informed reader will produce reviews that reflect authority and, with luck, an enthusiasm that’s contagious.”  Bud Kliment

Joining the reviewer community does not obligate you to write regular reviews; it gives you access to our inventory of books to review and to occasional email updates from me. The first step in becoming a, OHR reviewer  is to complete the Reviewer Profile form, usually followed up with email correspondence with me. The information on the form gives me an idea of your subject interests, your availability, and the address to send you a chosen book. There is also a question about your interest in writing media reviews, such as podcasts, documentaries, and digital projects. You can browse our online selection list of books available for review at any time and choose one you would like to review. Fill out the form on this page to request a book for review and I’ll get in touch about the details and arrange to have the book sent to you. Also familiarize yourself with the  detailed writing guidelines. I will record your book in the database and assign a due date, usually in about six months. And you can contact me any time for questions or general support. I hope to see your name in my inbox soon! Email address: 

Next post: “The Review,” will bring together all the components of this process to explore the final product. Or is it really the final product? Stay tuned!

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.