Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

The great reference books: Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates

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Here is the entry for “oak” from Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates, 1873 edition. This reference book, unique to the best of my knowledge, combines a brief definition or background, usually very brief, and some interesting significant dates around the topic. Here, for example, in the entry for “oak”, it gives dates of the introduction of North American varieties to the UK (it is, unfortunately, a very anglocentric compilation). Its great advantage is serendipity. The dates it provides might be useful; they might be useless, since there are so many things you could write about the oak tree. But entertaining they certainly are.

An example of the rather random nature of the content can be seen at the entry for “painting”. There is an attempt to capture some key dates in the history of painting, at least as it was perceived by a Western-focused vision. But after “Henry VIII invited Titian to his court” in 1523, the next entry is the sale of Lord Northwick’s pictures in 1860. We have suddenly switched from the history of painting to art sales. The impression is of a single person assembling thousands of index cards with potentially interesting dates in the course of their reading. When the book was put together, there was little attempt to provide a systematic overview of each topic – in other words, not so different to the present-day Wikipedia compilation process:

Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates was first published in 1841, according to an entry in Wikitree, and went through at least 20 editions. There is an entry for Joseph Timothy Haydn, the original compiler, in Wikipedia. In true reference-book fashion, he gave his name to many other compilations, but played no part in actually writing them. All credit to the Internet Archive for providing access to a scanned copy here.

To be precise, this is not a great reference work for its consistency, or for its editorial values. It is wonderful entertainment, a tribute to a remarkable and unique mind. Borges could well have taken inspiration from Mr Haydn. There is something marvellous about the Victorian determination to capture everything known in lists, even to the point of providing a chronology for the oak tree.


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1 Comment

  1. John Dove

    Michael Upshall was the first to tell me about Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates. I soon found one in a used bookstore. Mine is “Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates from the Beginning of Time until August 1, 1881”. I’d love to see someone put this up online simply as a demonstraction of what can be done electronically with such a classic reference work.

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