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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

July 13, 2011 [Scholarly Review 2]: Encyclopedic

Maybe this is just me, but I think we scholars (and perhaps we adult Americans more broadly) tend to overlook hard-copy encyclopedias as a serious and valuable scholarly resource for analytical work; certainly we recognize them as useful for younger students, and certainly many of us visit Wikipedia for quick (if somewhat suspect) information about a variety of topics, but when it comes to serious scholarly or analytical engagement with complicated issues, I’d be willing to bet that many of us would consider encyclopedias far too summative and basic to be of much use. Yet the reality is that we (or I’ll just change that to me—I could be entirely on an island here, and don’t want to project my own myopia onto everybody else) have developed that perspective in large part because our youthful experiences were with a particular, indeed basic and summative kind of encyclopedia—the Britannica type, featuring a couple of very general pages each on pretty much every topic under the sun (and on the sun, and on pretty much every nighttime topic too).
I spend most of my summer writing time at a table in the Needham (MA) Public Library that’s located right next to the reference section, and I can indeed attest that such ginormous encyclopedias do still exist in hard-copy form, and do seem most often to be consulted by those few local high schoolers who haven’t abandoned all on-hand research for the lure of the web. But the truth is that such encyclopedias have been complemented very thoroughly in recent decades by much more specialized, focused, in-depth, and scholarly works, references that offer valuable information and/or scholarly perspectives that could be of use for any meaningful work. In terms of the former, I recently wandered through the reference stacks while waiting for my computer to start and discovered the two-volume Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America: Primary Documents collection; the main EMA seems to be slightly more Britannica-like, but the Primary Documents collection is really unique and interesting, providing everything from memoir and fiction to photographs and news reports, all representing a pretty comprehensive, alphabetized list of ethnic American communities (from Afghan Americans to Vietnamese Americans, and with 88 more in between). The selections of course comprise only a handful of the literally millions of texts that could be chosen for each topic, so they are not, in that sense, encyclopedic at all; but they nonetheless provide (on first glance, at least) an exemplary snapshot of both the many genres and media that constitute American Studies and the diverse community that is 21st century America.
When it comes to the collecting scholarly perspectives kind of encyclopedia, I don’t have to wander anywhere to find one of the most impressive (and certainly the most relevant to this blog) specimens: the Encyclopedia of American Studies was largely the brainchild of, and is still edited by, my graduate school and dissertation advisor, Temple University Professor Miles Orvell; and because of that connection I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute a bit to the EAS, both in writing four articles and in various behind-the-scenes work on the still-expanding (though, understandably, subscription-only) online version. Not to plagiarize from myself, but I can’t highlight the EAS’s strengths any better than I did in a recommendation I wrote for Professor Orvell: “I would just stress here how much both the project and his perspective on it truly modeled for an American Studies approach: by that I mean partly the interdisciplinarity, as I spent a couple hours seeking photos for consecutive entries on ‘Southern Writers,’ ‘Space Program,’ ‘Benjamin Spock,’ and ‘Sports’; and partly the genuine openness to every element of American culture, exemplified by the gap and yet connection between my first biographical entries (Thoreau and Poe) and the last entry for which I found photos (Skateboarding). The project is not only a wonderful resource for American Studies teachers and scholars, it serves as a set of always timely reminders of the breadth and value of what we do.
The articles in the EAS, like the selections in the Gale volumes, are of course circumscribed by space and other limitations, and none serves as a substitute for more in-depth research into and analyses of their topics and focal points. But neither are these encyclopedias to be left to the high school students of the world (although they’d be great for them too!)—they have far too much to add to our conversations and perspectives at every level. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      The EAS:
2)      Info about the Gale Multicultural America books:
3)      OPEN: Any great resources you’d highlight?

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