Tales Told By Reference Books
by Marylaine Block
I've been amusing myself browsing through the U.S. Government Manual. I could do this online, but I wouldn't want to -- who would want to browse in an environment so hostile to the eyes? Online reference books are designed for looking something up quickly; you type in what you need and they zap directly to the matching entries. They're unbeatable when you know exactly what you want to know, but not when you simply want to explore.
Why would I want to flip randomly through the pages of the U.S. Government Manual? Because it answers the question, who ARE all these "faceless bureaucrats" and "pencil-pushers" and "bean-counters" living off the public payroll, that our politicians talk about with such contempt. In a casual stroll through the manual, I find that some of the beans being counted are injuries caused by products -- that's how the Consumer Product Safety Commission decides products are dangerous enough to require recalls. The Centers for Disease Control are counting incidences of disease and injury as an early warning system for public health problems. The faceless bureaucrats include national park guides, letter carriers, the "go teams" of the National Transportation Safety Board, librarians and archivists, meat inspectors, hurricane trackers, forest fire fighters -- people performing every conceivable kind of service.
There are lots of stories hiding inside reference books if we look at them that way. Leaf through an atlas of the United States and look at the names on the maps. Notice how in New Mexico, the Spanish names predominate. In all the western states notice how names like Silverton and Golden and Silver Springs trace the passage of men who hoped to strike it rich, and names that begin with Fort mark their origins as military outposts. Trace the path the French explorers and the exiled Acadians took on their way from Canada to Louisiana in the French names along the Mississippi River.
Bill Bryson found stories galore in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. He wondered about all the 400,000 Americans injured every year by their mattresses and pillows, and the 50,000 injured every year by pens, pencils and other desk accessories. How, he wondered, could more people be injured by sound recording equipment than by skateboards? How did 142,000 people manage to be sufficiently injured by their clothing that they needed to be treated in emergency rooms?
You can explore the essence of America in The Encyclopedia of Associations. Here we are, the ultimate believers in the single striving individual fighting for the right against all odds -- and to do it, we form organizations, publish newsletters, hire lobbyists, and set about changing the laws. Ah, America -- the natural home of the John Wayne Fan Club.
You can track the words we have lived by, with all their contradictions, in quote books. The West Law books record the hopes and dreams of millions of people seeking justice in court. Historical atlases, which teach us that our knowledge of the world was always incomplete, could also teach us that it still is. The shifting boundary lines over time conceal stories of wars and famines and royal marriages.
That's why I hope reference books survive in physical form, where we can open them at random and find things we never knew we wanted to know.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.
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