The other day I was hunting up an encyclopedia entry written by the historian Carl Becker that I hoped would clinch a certain argument in the chapter I am writing. It appeared in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1930-1935), a tremendous, fifteen volume project edited by the economists E. R. A. Seligman and Alvin Johnson. But my curiosity got the better of my expedition and I began paging through the last volume, which contains indices organized both by entry and by contributor. What else did Becker write about, I wondered, and what interesting pairings might I find?
Probably the most notable—the headline—entry was W. E. B. Du Bois’s article on Booker T. Washington, though you have to remember that this is an encyclopedia entry, not an essay for The New Republic—there aren’t fireworks. But browsing through the contributors, I was astonished at how comprehensive the roster was: I’m sure a more systematic assessment would turn up more absences, but there were very few names from the social sciences I could come up with who did not write something for the project, and its reach was both truly international—with especially large numbers of contributions from Germany and Italy, which was notable given the time of publication of these volumes—and relatively indifferent to formal institutional affiliation. Essentially, if you are interested in a social theorist, a public intellectual, or a social scientist who was alive at this time, you are likely to find him or her in this index. The only question, I suppose, is, should you bother? I think so, but I can also understand why the Encyclopedia has not shown up more often as a primary source in US intellectual history monographs.
For one thing, it’s unwieldy: fifteen cumbersome volumes. If your library is like the one I use, they are likely stashed in the reference section—it’s a blessing, actually, that they are not stowed in some off-site storage—so that, even if I were feeling intrepid about carrying one or two of the monsters home in a tote bag, I couldn’t: I have to use them on-site. And those are just practical considerations.
Historiographically, the project falls into an interesting kind of black hole: when it comes to the intellectual history of the social sciences, it seems, there have been two primary foci, with a third emerging more strongly of late. The first is, of course, the formative period of US social science, concentrated on the turn of the century, or, most expansively, the period between the conclusion of the Civil War and the petering out of the Progressive Era in the 1920s. The second is about the careers of European émigré intellectuals in the U.S. during the 1930s through the 1950s. And the third is now the first couple of decades of the Cold War.
From a distance, that seems like a fairly comprehensive chronological coverage, but from closer up, what I think falls out is precisely this moment where US social science had matured into a position of global leadership, had found its footing in the new world of philanthropic foundations, but had also not turned fully away from the progressive energies of its formative years and toward the fight against totalitarianism. It’s a fascinatingly transitional moment, full of confidence and yet also somewhat undirected.
But there is also the awkward question of what kind of interest we might show in encyclopedia entries as primary sources. From personal experience, most of us are apt to treat them as a menial or workman-like kind of intellectual labor, more like a form of service to the profession than a platform for original thought. Like book reviews, we might glean a few facts from them and perhaps draw a very generic picture of the reception or status of a particular work or idea, but we would seldom expect to find the kind of richness and density of ideas that we presume is more properly found in essays or book-length treatments. If encyclopedias interest us, they do so as collaborative or institutional projects: we are interested in how they are put together, not what they contain; in the editing, not the writing.
I don’t know that this is wrong, and I frankly haven’t read enough of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences to know whether it will repay close reading with any consistency. What the Encyclopedia might be best suited for is some kind of digital humanities project that maps the contributors as a kind of proxy for the Euro-American world of social thought in this moment, something like one of the projects in the Spatial History Project at Stanford.
But it is also true that, for the reasons sketched above and no doubt for other reasons as well, the Encyclopedia simply hasn’t been used, that we really won’t know if it is useful for your work, or mine, until we hunt up the entries pertinent to our projects and figure out whether they are just the dutiful syntheses of unoriginal interpretations which we tend to associate with encyclopedias… or if they are occasionally something else. So more than anything else, I simply want to call attention to the presence of the Encyclopedia, to communicate my interest. I hope you find it useful.
 Robert Lynd and Frederick Jackson Turner, two of the subjects of my project, were unfortunately among the missing, as was Walter Lippmann.
 Many of the contributors would become émigrés to the U.S., although I’m not precisely sure what their status and location was at the time they wrote their contributions. Some significant contributors, though, never left Europe.