Friday in the Stacks: Sources on the U.S. Government

“For forms of government let fools contest / whate’er issue best administered is best.”

Alexander Pope

Today I spent my hour reviewing a few reference works on American government and public policy: A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government, the Encyclopedia of American Government, the Encyclopedia of American Public Policy, and the Encyclopedia of the American Presidency. The Historical Guide to the U.S. Government and the Encyclopedia of American Government were most similar in terms of what they set out to do, so I decided to do a little exercise in comparing the two.

Though published in 1998, I found the Historical Guide reasonably enjoyable and fairly comprehensive. This work seems appropriate in scope and intended audience. Entries tend to be on various agencies, departments and groups of the federal government such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Library of Congress, the Mint, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. These kinds of entries help explain the structure of government. But, there are also some entries of extended essays on topics such as “Accountability in the Federal Government,” “History and Historians in the Federal Government,” and “Regulation and Regulatory Agencies.”

Because I’m interested in libraries, I did a little looking into the Library of Congress entry. Whenever I read anything in the stacks, I always come up with little project ideas… threads I will never unravel and re-sow but threads nonetheless. This time was no different. In the entry on the Library of Congress, I read:

“For a while, the Smithsonian Institution emerged as a rival to the Library of Congress.”

That one little line is likely to hide a fascinating history! It references that tumultuous period in our nation’s history: the 1850s-1860s. Ah, if I had all the time in the world, I’d satisfy that little itch I have to learn all about organizational culture and organizational drama – in this case in the early history of the Smithsonian and reasonably early history of the Library of Congress. In another life perhaps. (Clearly, I simply must start a “to do when retired” list). I digress.

Why would a Wellesley College undergraduate find herself in the stacks reading entries in this book though? The book is written by well credentialed authors, entries are short enough to be unintimidating but long enough to be substantive. If I were at the desk, I might guide a student to this source if she were starting on a paper or project and needed to know more about some entity in the government. I am dubious that she would wander to find this book on her own (as Wikipedia might solve her immediate needs – indeed, it has more about the period I am interested in for the LOC). But that is, perhaps, besides the point. It’s a good source. I like it. And now I know more about it.

I was not so pleased with the Encyclopedia of American Government. This four volume set read to me as if it were written for a high school student. I compared a few similar entries between the two works, and found the Encyclopedia lacking. For example, when I skimmed entries on the G.I. bill in both, I found the Historical Guide’s entry to be clearer, more concise, and ultimately more useful. So, I will likely not point my inquisitive Wellesley student this way anytime soon. Ah well, you win some and lose some, yes?

This week, I picked these resources to look at because I’ve got some decisions to make (thankfully with input from others!) about a few purchases for the political science reference section. One thing I realized this morning was that I need to consider what purchases might be redundant. For example, do we need another guide to the U.S. Presidency? Or does our 1994 Encyclopedia of the American Presidency offer what we need for students right now? (Actually that’s an unfair example because we also do have a Guide to the Presidency that is from 2008 which I didn’t look at this morning).

In any case, I think these are the kinds of questions I’ll be mulling over across each of my six departments over the weeks, months, and years… but for now, I think I’m beginning to develop some sense of the current scope of our collection as well as what updates and additions would be welcome.

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