Finding Background Information - United States History

American Decades
This almanac-style title was originally aimed at high schools, but it can be a good starting point for more in-depth research, thanks to its comprehensive coverage and generous bibliographies/source notes. Each of the 10 volumes covers a decade of the 20th century, running from 1900 through to 1999. Though each volume begins with a chapter on world events, and includes chapters on politics and law, the emphasis is on social history, with chapters examining topics such as fashion, religion, lifestyles and social trends, and education. Each chapter, in turn, begins with a chronology of major events and an “overview” survey essay, followed by a selection of short essays on “topics in the news,” biographical entries for “headline makers” and other people in the news (including winners of major awards, where appropriate), obituaries for prominent individuals who died during that decade, and a bibliography of major publications (many of the essays within each chapter also include their own notes on sources). All volumes conclude with a bibliography of general readings on the decade covered and a thorough index.
[Note: An interesting complement to this title is the Almanacs of American Life: the Library currently holds two volumes in this series, covering the years 1914 to 1945 (REF: E766.G74 1995) and 1946 to 1990 (REF: E741.G56 2002). The Almanacs place a greater emphasis on tabular and statistical data than American Decades, and are a bit more difficult to use, as they cram more years of coverage into a single volume.]
REF: E169.12 .A419

American Heritage Encyclopedia of American History
As a single-volume general reference for U.S. history, this work has obvious similarities to The Oxford Companion to United States History (see below), but also some important differences. With nearly 3,000 alphabetically-arranged entries, it is broader in scope than the Oxford Companion, though entries are generally much shorter than in the Oxford title. About a third of the entries are signed and have bibliographies. The volume is well indexed and cross-referenced, and there are several handy appendices, most notably “Timetables of American History”, chronologies of key events in U.S. history, organized thematically (e.g. “Politics and war”, “Science and technology”). Some may find this work more user-friendly than the Oxford Companion, due to its larger typeface, use of illustrations, and generally more concise entries, but the Oxford title is more authoritative and detailed.
REF: E174.A535 1998

Dictionary of American History, 3rd edition
The title is misleading: this is, in fact, an encyclopedia, and widely regarded as the reference standard in U.S. history. This edition, published in 2003, features more than 4,400 alphabetically-arranged entries by some 2,000 contributors, spread over 8 volumes (volume 9 contains primary documents and archival maps, and volume 10 is devoted to a detailed index and a short research guide). All aspects of U.S. history are covered, although there are no biographical entries. All entries are signed, and most have a bibliography. Maps and illustrations are found throughout, and the entries are heavily cross-referenced. Some of the entries have been criticized for factual errors, or for failing to provide a clear definition of their topics, but this is, overall, a good starting point for research on a huge range of historical topics.
REF: E173.D52 2003

Digital History (Steve Mintz, University of Houston)
A very attractive and comprehensive metapage for US history. Of particular interest are the site’s History Reference Room (which includes an on-line encyclopedia and a listing of recommended Web resources), Resource Guides (organized by broad topic and time period), and an on-line textbook. Although the site is generally user-friendly and easy to navigate, the lack of a good site search feature is a drawback.

Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates
This single-volume chronology of American history, covering all years from Columbus’ 1492 “discovery” to 1992, can be a handy ready-reference tool for quickly checking the key events of particular date or period in history. The dated entries are sorted into four broad thematic columns (with sub-topics ranging from politics through sports), which can make them difficult to read, and the volume is also marred by a lack of cross-referencing, illustrations, and bibliographies/source notes, although there is a detailed name/subject index.
REF: E174.5.C3 1993

Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies
Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century
Encyclopedia of the United States in the Twentieth Century

Although these three titles are meant to be companions to each other, they all have rather different formats: the three-volume set dealing with the colonial period consists of nearly 300 topical and thematic essays, organized into broad categories (e.g. “Government and Law”, “Education”, etc.); the three-volume set examining the nineteenth century has a more typical arrangement for a reference work, with nearly 600 alphabetically-arranged entries, generally shorter and more topical than those found in the other two titles; the four volumes in the twentieth century set present just over 70 lengthy interpretive essays, also organized into categories (e.g “The American People”, “Global America”, “Culture”, etc.). All three titles have won praise for the quality of their scholarship and writing, and the nineteenth-century volumes are also very well-illustrated. The broad conceptual approach of the colonial and twentieth century titles, especially, can be a bit bewildering for those needing a ready reference tool, but all three titles are well indexed and cross-referenced. Generous bibliographies are also provided in all three titles.
[Colonies] REF: E45.E53 1993
[19th Century] REF: E169.1.E626 2001
[20th Century] REF: E740.7.E53 1996

Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970
Datapedia of the United States, American History in Numbers
The two-volume Historical Statistics of the United States presents thousands of statistical tables documenting almost every conceivable aspect of U.S. life. The tables are organized into broad thematic chapters ranging from population through to colonial and pre-federal statistics. The chapters start with a general introductory essay, followed by detailed notes for every table in the chapter, explaining the sources, terminology, and methodology used in compiling and presenting each set of statistics. This structure, combined with excellent time-frame and subject indexes at the back of each volume, make the work surprisingly easy to navigate, considering its enormous wealth of information, but the presentation of the data is often quite technical. 
The Datapedia seeks to provide a more up-to-date and “reader-friendly” companion to the Historical Statistics, presenting only the most significant data from the original volumes, updated to 2003 (with projections to 2050, in some cases), in easier-to-read tables and with introductory text that is less technical and jargon-laden.
REF: HA202.B871975

Historical Atlas of the United States
Surprisingly, given the enormous volume of reference publishing in the field of U.S. history, a comprehensive, authoritative American historical atlas, comparable to the Historical Atlas of Canada, has, apparently, not yet been produced. One of the closest things available is the single-volume Historical Atlas of the United States, published by the National Geographic Society. Five chronological time-line sections, spanning 1400 to 1988, are interspersed with six broad thematic sections (e.g. Economy; Communities). The pages are large, bright, and attractive, but the text – which is aimed at the general reader, not researchers – and illustrations often overwhelm the maps, and the juxtaposition of chronological and thematic sections can be confusing. Still, a lot of useful information is provided, which, combined with the detailed index and bibliography at the back, make this a serviceable reference work.
[Note: Mapping America’s Past: A Historical Atlas (REF: G1201.S1C3 1996), covering an eclectic mix of topics in U.S. history (e.g. “Utopian communities”, “Crime and Capital Punishment”) from the first nations’ era to the 1990s, is an interesting complement to this title, but its maps, too, are often overwhelmed by other material – a problem made more acute by the volume’s relatively small size – and the index is not very detailed, making if difficult to pinpoint particular information.]
REF.OSZ G1201.S1N3 1988

Oxford Companion to United States History [2001 edition]
As with other Oxford Companions, this work sets out to provide, in a single volume, an introduction to a broad array of topics in its field. Prominent events, individuals, and places, as well as broader themes and eras throughout U.S. history, are covered. The more than 1,400 alphabetically-arranged entries, written by 900 expert contributors, range in length from a short paragraph to 5 or 6 pages. All entries are signed and most have bibliographies/reading lists. The volume is extensively indexed and cross-referenced, and there are more than 20 historical maps.
REF: E174.O94 2001

Reader’s Guide to American History
This title presents, in a single volume, 600 bibliographic essays on a range of significant individuals and topics in U.S. history. Each essay typically describes and evaluates about 6 to 12 of the most important works on a given subject. The entries are cross-referenced and navigability is further enhanced by a listing at the front of the volume sorting all the entries by chronological era and theme. At the back of the volume are a master list of all the works discussed (about 5,000 in all) and a detailed name/subject index. This can be a very helpful starting point for further research.
REF: Z1236.R43 1997

United States History : A Multicultural, Interdisciplinary Guide to Information Sources, 2nd edition.
This book provides annotated entries for more 1,200 information sources in U.S. History, ranging from databases through reference works to books: classic works are included, but the emphasis is on up-to-date resources. Each annotation describes the scope, content, and usage of a particular resource. The annotations are organized in six chapters, beginning with general resources and followed by five broad thematic chapters (e.g. Economic History, Military History), each of which, in turn is broken down into sub-topics (the military history chapter, for example, has sub-sections for each branch of the military and for each major conflict in which the U.S. has been involved). Each chapter and section have introductions giving a concise overview of recent developments in a given field of historical study. The careful arrangement, combined with a detailed author/title index and subject index at the back of the volume make this volume easy to navigate.
REF: Z1236.P45 2003

In addition to general resources such as those just listed, the Library's reference shelves are full of more specialized reference tools designed to aid the student of U.S. history. The list below is certainly not exhaustive, but it does give some indication of the range of titles available. To determine if there is a reference book pertinent to your research topic, search the Library’s Online Catalogue or ask at the Information Desk for assistance.

Encyclopedia of American Political History
This single-volume companion contains more than 240 alphabetically-arranged entries providing concise, readable overviews of individuals (including all presidents from Washington through Clinton), organizations, concepts, and events that have shaped U.S. politics, from the Revolutionary period through to the 2000 Presidential election. All entries are signed and supported by a bibliography and, where appropriate, cross references; many are illustrated. A detailed name/subject index is provided, as are a handy chronology of American politics and glossary of the acronyms and abbreviations of political organizations and agencies (and other bodies, such as unions and lobby groups) influential in U.S. politics.
[Note: The similarly-titled Encyclopedia of American Political History: Studies of the Principal Movements and Ideas (REF: E183.E5 1984) is a very different work, presenting 90 interpretive essay, usually quite lengthy and tending to deal more with broader concepts, such as “separation of powers”, than the above volume. Still, the two works complement each well.]
REF: E183.E48 2001

Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History
Hailed as the most authoritative and comprehensive work in its field when first published in 1996, this five-volume set features over 2,300 alphabetically-arranged entries – many of them biographies – on nearly all aspects African-American life, from 1619 to the 1990s. The length of the entries ranges from short paragraphs to more than a dozen pages: all are signed and supported by reference lists, and many are illustrated. Volume 5 contains a detailed index, and scores of valuable appendices – mainly in the form of lists, chronologies, and statistical tables – arranged in more than a dozen topical areas, from Agriculture to Sports.
[Note: The Library holds a number of other reference works on African Americans, including single-volume chronology/historical companion African American Years (REF: E185.S797 2003).]
REF: E185.E54 1996

Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History
This fascinating, challenging work presents 220 interpretive essays on many different facets of American thought and culture. Spread over three volumes, the essays are presented in 17 parts, the first eight of which represent chronological eras, from the colonial period through to the start of the 21st century. The remaining parts are organized around broad themes, such as “The Pursuit and Exchange of Knowledge” and “The Arts and Cultural Expression”. Each part typically contains about 10 - 15 interpretive essays: all the essays have bibliographies, often quite lengthy, and some are illustrated. The cross-referencing is thorough, and volume 3 has a detailed index. In spite of these helpful features, this is not a ready-reference source: many of the entries deal with difficult or abstract concepts, often in considerable detail, and some contributors deliberately take controversial or opinionated positions, eschewing the ideal of “balance” normally sought in a reference work.
REF: E169.E624 2001

Encyclopedia of the American West
The geographical scope of this four-volume set encompasses all areas west of the Mississippi – including Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Canada and Mexico; with chronological coverage extending from the Spanish period to mid-20th century. The roughly 1,700 alphabetically-arranged entries range in length from a short paragraph to several pages: all are signed and have at least a short reading list, and many are illustrated – in some cases lavishly – and cross-referenced. A detailed name/subject index is included in volume 4.
[Note: The single-volume New Encyclopedia of the American West – REF: F591.N46 1998 – was hailed as superior to the above title by some reviewers, and it is, at the very least an important complement, having more entries and broader historical coverage.]
REF: F591.E485 1996

Encyclopedia of the American Civil War
So many books – including reference works – are published about the U.S. Civil War each year that it is difficult to single out any particular title, but, for now, this five-volume set seems to be the acknowledged reference standard. The more than 1,600 biographical and topical entries are arranged alphabetically: all are signed, and supported by cross-references and a reading list. Some of the entries were criticized for being too brief, but most are quite detailed and thorough. All the volumes are well illustrated, and volume 5 presents several helpful appendices (mostly listings of key leaders), transcriptions of key documents, a chronology, a glossary, and a lengthy bibliography and index.
[Note: The Library holds other reference works devoted to particular wars in which the U.S. was heavily involved, including: the Revolutionary War (see REF: E208.A433 1993); the War of 1812 (see REF: E354.H46 1997); the First World War (see REF: D510.U65 1995); the Second World War (see REF: D743.5.P57 1996); the Vietnam War (see REF: DS557.7.E53 1998); and the first Gulf War (see REF: UF500.G8 1995).]
REF: E468.E53 2000

Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America
This two-volume title presents lengthy essays – typically around 10,000 words – on more than one hundred distinct ethnic or cultural groups in the U.S., arranged alphabetically from the Acadians to the Yupiat. The entries follow a standard format, beginning with an historical overview of the group’s arrival and settlement in the U.S., followed by sections on various aspects of the group’s identity, such as acculturation and assimilation, family and community dynamics, and individual and group contributions to U.S. history and culture. Each entry concludes with a directory of media outlets and cultural institutions/organizations serving that group, and a list of sources for additional study. Volume 2 concludes with a general bibliography of readings on multiculturalism and a detailed name/subject index. The Library also holds a two-volume set of primary documents published a complement to the original encyclopedia.
REF: E184.A1 G14 1999

Oxford Companion to American Military History
This single-volume companion offers 1,000 alphabetically-arranged biographical and topical entries on many aspects of the U.S. military in war and peacetime, from the colonial period through to 1999. The entries range from short profiles of particular battles/events, individuals, weapons, etc. longer treatments of major conflicts and broad concepts (e.g. “Society and war.”). Most of the entries provide an appropriate level of detail and all have at least one or two suggestions for further reading. The volume is thoroughly cross-referenced and indexed. There are no illustrations (except for a visual guide to rank insignia, presented as an appendix), and only a few – not very detailed – maps. One very helpful appendix is the table showing U.S. enlistment and casualty figures for all of the nation’s major conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the first Gulf War.
REF: E181.O94 1999

Created by: Simon Lloyd, B.A., M.L.I.S.
Liaison Librarian (North American History)
Phone: 902-566-0536
Date Created: 06-June-2005
Reviewed: 26-August-2016