CISH: A Report on a Round Table

James Friguglietti, October 2005

Editor's Note: Delegates to the recent International Congress of Historical Sciences—commonly referred to by its French acronym, CISH—held July 3—9, 2005, in Sydney (see the report in the September 2005 Perspectives) had a wide variety of sessions to choose from ranging from traditional paper presentations to roundtables. We print below a brief report on one of the many roundtables held during the congress.

On July 4, 2005, some 30 of the 1,400 plus delegates attended Round Table 12 devoted to Historical Dictionaries and Encyclopedias and heard five papers delivered by scholars from the United States, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, and the Czech Republic. Under the capable direction of the session convener, Lucienne Hubler, an editor of the Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse, the other participants discussed works that they had already completed or were still editing.
Kathleen Sheldon, an independent scholar based at UCLA, described how she composed her Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa, remarkably assembling the considerable body of information concerning prominent women, institutions, and events by herself. Sheldon based her dictionary on a variety of printed sources, as well as extensive correspondence with informed individuals.

Andrew Brown-May, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, discussed his labors as editor of the Encyclopedia of Melbourne, a work 10 years in preparation. Some 450 individuals contributed to the volume, to be published by Cambridge University Press. What is novel about the work is that it will also appear online, making it more accessible to readers everywhere.

Far different is the Encyclopedia of Historiography, edited by Koichi Kabayama, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. A massive work consisting of 15 volumes to which some 1,000 historians are contributing, it is organized not in alphabetical order but by themes. Each volume is devoted to its own subject: king and state, law and order, war and diplomacy, people and change, religion and learning, status and community, man and work, exchange and consumption, possession and production, and communication. Two others cover body and life as well as form and symbol while additional ones deal with historians and work as well as the methodology of history. Publication of the encyclopedia is expected to be completed in 2008.

In the final presentation, Jaroslav Pánek, member of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, discussed a wide range of historical reference works from central and eastern Europe. He explained that the end of censorship since the early 1990s liberated scholars from governmental control and opened the way for ex-communist states to produce reference works express their own national identities.

As the commenter, I noted that historical dictionaries and encyclopedias are not usually read from cover to cover. Instead they are consulted as sources for concise and reliable information. Their editors must resolve the complexities of what topics are to be included, how the material is to be organized, who contributes to them, and how entries can be contributed on schedule. Inevitably most reference works age. In the past, revision of such volumes required considerable time and expense. Today they can be issued on CD-ROM or posted online, making updated versions far easier to produce. Given the continuing knowledge explosion and greater accessibility of information thanks to the Internet, historical reference works will continue to proliferate while becoming more readily available to readers everywhere.

—James Friguglietti is professor of history emeritus at Montana State University, Billings