The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, edited by Joel Mokyr. Vol. 1--Accounting and Bookkeeping to Contract Labor and the Indenture System, Vol. 2--Cooperative Agriculture and Farmer Cooperatives to Hughes, Jonathan, Vol. 3--Human Capital to Mongolia, Vol. 4--Monte di Pieta to Spain, Vol. 5--Spices and Spice Trade to Zoos and Other Animal Parks. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 2003. ISBN 0195105079, $695.00. Vol. 1, xli + 538 pages; vol. 2, v + 550 pages; vol. 3, v + 550 pages; vol. 4, v + 553 pages; vol. 5, v + 539 pages.
This is truly an outstanding set of books. My original intent, over six months ago, was to do an honest review and do it by reading a significant, substantial sample of the essays but not all of them. Once I got into the volumes, I found that I was drawn from one essay to another and I was making my way through the volumes at a vastly slower pace than intended. Fortunately, I had several very long plane trips in which a volume of this set was my sole on-board companion. Rarely did I even skim an essay let alone skip any. My own behavior and commitment of time to them speaks louder about them than anything further that I can say.
It is doubtful that many readers of this review will buy their own personal set of these volumes, so the first question one asks is whether the reader should recommend it to his or her library to order. As one who has a quite large collection of multi-volume, unabridged dictionaries (including the OED) reference books of all kinds and a collection of books accumulated over decades, I honestly rarely if ever use them now, turning increasingly to the Internet for everything except a comprehensive treatment of an issue in a book that I have not yet read or an journal article which I will often download from the Internet rather than obtaining a hardcopy. I doubt I am unique in this, so a multi-volume encyclopedia on any subject has a extremely high hurdle to overcome. In spite of this, multi-volume reference books on broad topics and on more arcane topics are still being published--I have recently contributed to two of them.
Without question, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History merits a place in school, university, and public libraries. As editor, Joel Mokyr has kept the essays to a uniformly high standard with a fascinating array of topics. The beginning and ending articles that delineate each volume illustrate the diversity of topics nicely. In an earlier era, one might...