Notes from a Dinosaur Who Cares About Reference Books

I am getting so old that I can remember when people used hard copies of paper encyclopedias! I read the World Book Encyclopedia when I was a kid, and later I spent perhaps a couple years’ worth of my life, depending on how one counts, writing articles for reference books in American Studies and the academic study of religions. 

Colleagues, some of them good friends, would ask me to contribute and I could see no good reason not to say yes. The mode of straightforward and concise writing helped me get my thoughts in order, both for teaching and more argumentative writing. The work was a service not solely to my friends but to wider publics. Moreover, this seemed to me “real” scholarly publication—indeed, in some cases, it struck me as an honor to be asked to contribute. Gradually I came to understand that the skill set I needed to write them, the use value of the results, and the scholarly quality were often discounted by people at my school who assessed my my “productivity” as a “scholar,” so that the above-mentioned sense of honor could flip to a perception that I was a chump doing “mere service.”  It reduced to a numbers game, counting bullet lists of articles (without reading them) with some lists deemed unimportant. Still I take pride in this work, and as I have argued on MBE before, part of the purpose of tenure is (or should be) to exercise judgment about the worth of such work, pushing back against the colonization of higher education by algorithms that count instead of read.

In some ways this work now seems to be lost time dribbled out of my life, even though it helped me get my thoughts in order and hopefully also helped a few readers. A problem persists even after bracketing the grotesque apples and oranges discounts taken against various categories of my work. (One above-mentioned article took an entire year to write, another a few hours to spin off from another project, but they counted “the same.”)  The problem is that these articles are now unlikely to be read at all unless, first, they transition into a digital archive, and second they manage to stand out among a cacophony of people shouting at each other in the online world. I recently noted someone describing Twitter as a “roiling shit-pit” which seems about right. Also, while my books are printed on paper designed to last hundreds of years, many of the links to my online publications are already broken after less than a decade. 

One of these past projects is on my mind today, because I’ve been updating a history of the academic department where I worked for 27 years. I want to link from my history to this article that needs an online home, and also to an analysis that can place our department in its wider intellectual and historical contexts, concisely yet in more depth than is right for my story.  My own article that ran in the Encyclopedia of American Religion (edited by Peter Williams and Chuck Lippy, from 2010) is the best I know that fits the bill.

It runs a little long for MBE, so I’ve chunked it into three parts. The first installment is ready today and you can click right to it: “Exactly What Does “Religious Studies” Study? —the Evergreen Debate.”  Later I will follow with part two, “Creation Myths of Religious Studies” and then part three—“Pros, Cons, and Whiplash: Studying American Religions from a Home Base in Religious Studies.” There is a highly select bibliography at the end of the third section. Since its concision was designed for an encyclopedia with narrow word counts and wide cross-references, I would happily pursue questions about sources with anyone who wants to email me about it.  

Substantially this is the same as the encyclopedia version, only ten years old but you could buy it used on amazon.com today— my article plus another 2785 pages—at a price discounted to $16 from the original list price of $765. However, I compressed my word count savagely for the print version with some occasional cost to clarity and precision, not to speak of nuance I wanted to add almost everywhere. Thus I have let this MBE version breathe a little more in a few places. I trust that no one will sue me because I am republishing this cash cow here!

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but rather an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

2 thoughts on “Notes from a Dinosaur Who Cares About Reference Books

  1. Pingback: Creation Myths of Religious Studies: Starting Over Near a Dead Tree Vs. an Evolving Garden with Old and New Roots | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

  2. Pingback: Pros, Cons, and Whiplash: Studying American Religions from a Home Base in Religious Studies | MBE: Mark's blogging experiment

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