Monday, August 13, 2018

Another look at old reference books

Last week I got to spend some time in a college town (Charleston, Illinois), and I picked up a nice hefty reference book in a used-book store: The Reader's Companion to American History, edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991). It's just the kind of thing to have on hand to check up whether you need an upgrade on who exactly Elizabeth Blackwell was, or a quick look at agriculture (and especially when Wikipedia is having a bad day).

I didn't pay much attention to the publication date -- those who work with dead people rarely need historical context for the last 27 years -- but when I reviewed the titles of the entries I realized that the book itself is a historical artifact and a creature of its time. The Cold War was just barely over; Bush I was president; many individuals with entries (Benjamin Spock) were still alive.

There are no entries for computers, technology, terrorism, or trolls. I found myself wondering what the large group of historians involved would have added and subtracted if they were tasked with producing a similar book of similar length (1226 pages) today. What would they cut to make way for more recent events and conditions?

None of this made me regret my purchase; quite the opposite. It is in fact a member of an interesting group of books: the last of the enormous compendia, like Hoosier Faiths or Ancestry's Red Book. It's a relic of a time, not really that long ago, when information was relatively scarce. It's not just a well-grounded source for earlier history, it is itself a part of history too. (And a still-changing part: I see a Kindle edition is available.)

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