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Growing Phenomenon: The Specialized Scholarly Encyclopedia

September 21, 2006

The phenomenon of the history-oriented, semi-specialized scholarly encyclopedia is growing by leaps and bounds. In the past two to three years, I have seen more and more calls for entry writers. Just today I noticed a call, sent via H-Net, for the Encyclopedia of North American Sport, published by M.E. Sharpe. Sharpe, by the way, seems quite active in this area.

I wonder what started this trend? Why are these encyclopedias popular? Who is buying them? I assume universities are the target population.

Here in Chicago, the Encyclopedia of Chicago (available online) was well received by both academic and general literary critics. I recall a very positive review by the Chicago Tribune. Amazon customer reviews average between four and five stars (of five possible). The Encyclopedia of Chicago was published by both the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum (formerly Chicago Historical Society). Northwestern University is collaborating with both for the online version.

As a young scholar, I have written for two of these (Encyclopedia of American Urban History, Encyclopedia of the Jazz Age), and have contracted for one more (Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars). They are a relatively easy way to add to one’s scholarly publication list, but I wonder about the downside. They’re peer-reviewed in a loose way, as the editorial staff generally hold doctorates. But they don’t count – at least in my mind – as a peer-reviewed publication, the standard for claiming a scholarly publication.

I wonder if younger scholars are really helping themselves out, helping themselves to really be better scholars, by taking on these projects? In some ways, the process seems like a kind of adjuncting of the scholarly writing process. These publications take advantage of the young scholar’s need for recognition, but perhaps do not, in the end, really help. They might be just a distraction from the goals of writing peer-reviewed articles and books, as well as deeply researching a specialized topic.

Then again, these encyclopedias seem to be reaching people: a scholar’s work might actually make it into the hands of interested, general audiences. Perhaps this encyclopedia phenomenon might result in an American public better educated in its history? – TL

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