J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Revolution References

The Journal of the American Revolution is running another weeklong series of questions for its contributors, including me. Monday’s question was “Which American Revolution book do you refer to most often (not to be confused with ‘favorite book’)? Why?”

Different people interpreted the question in different ways. Some folks wrote about the historic sources they study most often, such as the Cornwallis Papers, Peter Force’s American Archives, the Papers of George Washington, or more specific collections. In my case that might include the Boston Town Records published a century ago.

Others spotlighted one-volume histories of the war: John Ferling’s Almost A Miracle, Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation, Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, and The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by the Participants, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris.

Yet others named their favorite reference volumes: Mark M. Boatner’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Richard Ryerson and Gregory Fremont-Barnes’s Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War, and The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. For researching officers on the two sides, there are British Army Officers: Who Served in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 by Steven M. Baule and Stephen Gilbert and the venerable Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army During the American Revolution by Francis B. Heitman.

I interpreted the question that last way, but I realized that these days I usually don’t refer to any reference volume at all—I use Wikipedia to get the basics and then do my first followup through Google. Need to know the difference between Charles Lee the general and Charles Lee the Attorney-General? It’s just a few clicks and a little disambiguation away. I was pleased to see that a few of the folks commenting on the posting admitted to that same approach.

But I keep reading books as well, and over the next few days I’ll talk about some from the past year.


Xathos said...

I thought your answer was quite truthful. The problem is the hypocrisy that exists in academia regarding the use of Wikipedia, and from that point to the Internet. We have it hammered into our heads for years that Wikipedia is bad and cannot be trusted. This is not quite true. Wikipedia is not bad, but it cannot be trusted as the final definition. What source can?

Any researcher worth a damn is going to double check everything at least once. If it is questionable they will address it, verify it, note it, or discard it. Those of us who have found the Internet use Wikipedia as a launching point for things we have questions about. Why? It has a list of sources, that's why. Not all of us have giant reference libraries in our offices or live in a place like Boston where historical documents are everywhere. I for example live in a place where a historical document is considered to be last week's newspaper.

As I explain to my geography students, use Wikipedia. Verify facts. Use it as a springboard to other places and question everything. Just never cite it. It's like a game. Then I point to the textbook and ask them if everything in it is up to date and factual? What has changed since it was printed? I cite two spots in it that are outdated and several others that are in the process of changing. In that regard Wikipedia is far more accurate!

Anonymous said...

The ability for anyone to make changes to Wikipedia entries is a double-edged sword...trust, but verify!

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Wikipedia can only be a starting-point. It's just such a comprehensive and convenient starting-point that I have to recognize it.

In addition, any error we find in Wikipedia is keystrokes away from us fixing it. Of course, we may not have time for those keystrokes, but it's only as good as we make it.