Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When is a history book too old?

I was recently browsing in the library of the small college where I work, and I wandered into the section on German history. I was a little surprised that the section was so large, since the college does not strictly have a history major. Most of the shelves were taken up with books about World War II, which is to be expected, but there were a couple of books on the Holy Roman Empire, which is the reason why I had wandered into the section.

When looking at history books I always check the publication date. History information does get out of date. Every year historians are digging up new facts, and formulating new contexts in which to see the old figures. I like to imagine that we’re getting more picky about sources too, but I don’t want to swear to that one. The first book I pulled off the shelf had a publication date of 1983. Thirty years is pretty out of date, but I was willing to take a look at the book if the other couple were even older. The next one I opened was printed in 1967. The one after that was printed in 1928. 1928! I am shocked that that book is still on the shelf!

Now, that does not mean the book is worthless, I like to trace my sources back as far as they will go, often to books published in the early 20th century, but I’m obsessive. The book might have use in a historiography study, but I highly doubt anyone attending this college could even define historiography. The college where this book is shelved does not have a full history major. It is an undergraduate institution that offers 2 classes in Western Civilization, and one course on Contemporary Europe.  I’m skeptical about the worth of the 1967 book, and  I’m sure that the 1928 book has very little to offer the current students.

But I’m not a librarian, or a professor. I’m a lowly staff member with a love of history. I’m not going to make a fuss, the librarians are over worked and underappreciated. But I did want to say something here, and remind folks to check those publication dates before you trust anything you may read.

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