Africa Today 50.1 (2003) 124-127
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Scarecrow Press and editor Jon Woronoff have been publishing the African Historical Dictionaries series since 1974, and these books provide useful and accessible reference information for casual and serious researchers. Despite extensive scholarship on Liberia, there is nothing comparable for that nation to Fyfe's A History of Sierra Leone (1962), the magnum opus every scholar turns to (if only the index) for reference on Sierra Leone. When D. Elwood Dunn and Svend E. Holsoe produced the first edition of their Historical Dictionary of Liberia (1985), it was therefore an important contribution to the historiography of Liberia [End Page 124]
For the revised, 2001 edition, Dunn remains and is joined by Amos J. Beyan and Carl Patrick Burrowes. All three are academics at universities in the United States, and all hail originally from Liberia. This edition contains new entries and important updates, which will be welcome to those interested in the civil war and Liberian politics in the second half of the twentieth century. But for scholars interested in the early history of Liberia, this edition is actually less valuable and reliable than the first volume that appeared sixteen years ago.
At the front of the volume, the reader finds maps, a list of abbreviations, a chronology, and an introduction. The first significant revision is the first date of the chronology: "1200: Spanish explorers reach pre-Liberia" (p. xxiii). I do not know which invention is more troubling, this utterly fallacious event or the term pre-Liberia. This term is used throughout the book, and is defined as "a term used by historians to refer to the current territory of Liberia, prior to the establishment of the colony in 1822" (p. 270). "Pre-Sierra Leone" is also used, but never defined.
Contrary to the compilers' assertion, these terms are not employed by historians, and are entirely their own inventions. For general readers, the prefixes are especially inappropriate, and for specialists on Liberia, there might be some debate as to the precise date for the origin of modern "Liberia," given here as 1822. Some might argue it was 1821, with the acquisition of land and settlement founded at Cape Mesurado; others might say later, with the formal naming of the colony in 1824, or later still, in 1847, with independence and international recognition of "Liberia." In my view, the best way to handle this is simply to use the term Liberia throughout the volume to refer to the area covered by the present-day nation-state.
The dictionary entries are presented alphabetically, with cross-referenced items appearing in bold type. At the end of the book, further readings are suggested in a selected bibliography, with various published items listed under themes: general works, culture, science, social science, history, politics, and economics. The bibliography is extensive, and updated to 1999, but not entirely useful (see below). For some reason, the compilers have also done away with the index—a real disadvantage, considering many important subjects do not have their own entries. For example, "Phelps-Stokes Fund" appears only within other entries. The index in the 1985 edition pointed readers to page numbers where relevant information could be found on a wide range of topics. I see no reason for removing it.
The number of entries in the second edition has increased, but the value of individual entries has decreased. In the first edition, entries were often followed by a short list of abbreviated references. Readers could turn to the back of the volume to obtain the full references for further research. In the second edition, references attached to entries have been deleted, thereby turning the crucial full references at the back into a mere reading list. For example, the entry for Thomas E. Beysolow (p. 40)—an important author, jurist, and legislator—is textually the same as what appeared in [End Page 125] the 1985 edition, but the page-number...