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.