State and Regional Encyclopedias: Unexpected Legal Research Tools

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Skilled legal researchers are accustomed to using state legal encyclopedias to support the research of our students, faculty members, and communities. But what about general encyclopedias devoted to individual U.S states and regions?

Roughly half of the U.S. states have free, online state encyclopedias available. Many state encyclopedias originated in the print era. Some were the product of private groups like state historical associations, while others were created by state archives or other agencies tasked with promoting local history and culture. Encyclopedias moved online in 1999, with the publication of the Handbook of Texas Online. Georgia followed suit in 2004 with the first state encyclopedia designed specifically for online publication. Then-Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Ferris, saw an opportunity and established an NEH grant to support similar works. For example, the Mississippi Encyclopedia was published in 2017 in both print and online versions. Regional encyclopedias are less likely to be online, but are often held by academic libraries.

State encyclopedias are usually characterized by short entries giving a brief overview of a topic. They may include references and/or links to other works on the topic, like academic journal articles or scholarly monographs. Most online encyclopedias also include hyperlinks within the text to other entries. Some encyclopedias include the name of the author of the article and their relevant biographical information. Like other types of encyclopedias, state encyclopedias are best used as an introduction to a subject and then by directing researchers to primary materials or more in-depth secondary sources.

Researchers should exercise the same caution when using state encyclopedias as any other reference materials; for example, anyone concerned with finding up-to-date information should always check the publication date of an article. As the article accompanying the list on Wikipedia notes, “quality varies dramatically,” so everyone should read with a critical eye. Researchers should also be aware that, like any historical publication or product of a governmental agency, state encyclopedias are not free of politics or bias. For example, older print encyclopedias in the South often promoted Lost Cause ideology and other false views of history. Fortunately, more recent publications are less likely to condone those views and often deal with those issues by including articles about political disputes, acknowledging multiple points of view, and explicitly engaging with controversies about historical accuracy. Nevertheless, caution is warranted.

How can we use state encyclopedias to support legal research? Recently I have used online state encyclopedias to find background information about a Native American treaty for a student writing about current issues with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I also used an encyclopedia to find an in-depth scholarly monograph on a major U.S. Supreme Court case for another student’s work. Many state encyclopedias will have articles devoted to the political and legal life of the state, including landmark cases. Entries on judges, legislators, governors, and other political figures can yield helpful information. Ultimately, state and regional encyclopedias can provide an excellent starting point for historical, cultural, or interdisciplinary research on any number of legal topics.

* The author of this article has contributed entries to the Mississippi Encyclopedia and the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

Posted by Ellie Campbell on Wed. January 27, 2021 8:30 AM
Categories: Uncategorized

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