We Bow to Authority

Published:April 22, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

When exactly did the Civil War start? Yes, we all learned in school that it began with the firing on Fort Sumter in April of 1861. On the other hand, Encyclopedia Virginia Managing Editor Matthew Gibson will argue that the Civil War began at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. And Media Editor Matt Gaventa recently declared that World War II actually began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1937. History, of all things, is a moving target. That’s interesting to me.

But it also creates a problem for the encyclopedia. Here’s a sentence from our entry on Booker T. Washington: “Late in the summer of 1865, four months after the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865), Ferguson summoned his family to join him.” You’ll notice that we decided to parenthetically include the dates of events like the Civil War—but what if we can’t decide what those dates are supposed to be?

That’s what the Library of Congress is for. We have decided to defer to what’s called the Library of Congress Authorities. These are the library’s official classifications. For them, the Civil War started in 1861 and the Second World War in 1939.

The LOC also clears up confusion about writers’ names. Take the example of Emily Tapscott Clark Balch (1890–1953), who was the founding editor of the Reviewer, a Richmond-based magazine that helped spark the Southern Renaissance. The Library of Congress prefers Emily Clark and, for the sake of brevity if nothing else, so do we. But the library also lists her birth year as 1893. In this case, our contributor, Leanne E. Smith, did the leg work, and we’ll happily defer to her.

There’s authority, and there is authority.


4 Comments on “We Bow to Authority”

  1. Kati Singel

    When the National Park Service began to plan for the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War, they began in 1854 with the border wars between Kansas and Missouri, then progressing into 1859, the raid by John Brown, when shots were fired, but no war began until more than a year later. Of course, in 1861, no formal declaration of war was issued because for the Union to issue a declaration of war would be to acknowledge the Confederacy as a belligerent nation, although the struggle for Fort Sumter was taken as a declaration of war. Therefore, we must analyze: what is the definition of war?According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition which best describes this conflict is: a state of armed conflict between different states. So, if this war is a state of armed conflict, then the origin would have to be a military action, which would be April 1861, when the first shots were fired between the states, so I agree with the Library of Congress. I suppose that is what happens when you are raised in Virginia, it will always be the “war between the states.” I could not resist contributing to the discussion. Interesting blog entry. I especially can appreciate the quote that “history, of all things, is a moving target.”

  2. Pingback: Odds & Ends: April 26, 2008

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  4. michael Kreyling

    Can you help me with basic biog. data for Virginia Kent Cummins, editor of The Lyric 1949-53? and benefactor of the magazine?

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