Heritage, Volume 8, Number 1, Winter 1990 Page: 21
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Then I saw her smiling. She couldn't
resist teasing the Texan about the little
title for such a big project.
"We can't give up the title," I concluded.
"It has too much recognition, too
much reputation. It's the only book of its
kind in the country.
When Walter Prescott Webb became
director of the Texas State Historical Association
in 1939, he had set out to produce
a general reference work on Texas history.
None existed, and he observed that reliable
information on many different subjects,
such as Stephen F. Austin, the Big
Bend, Comanche Indians, or the discovery
of oil, was available only in a general reference
library. He patterned his combination
after Frederick Hodge's highly respected
Handbook of North American Indians. Such
an effort devoted to one state would be difficult,
he said, but with the combined, cooperative
efforts of every knowledgeable
authority on Texas, it could be done. The
result would be a genuine "people's reference
book"-a compendium of thousands
of useful, concise, factual, informative entries
on every significant aspect of Texas.
Only a scholar of Webb's vision could have
conceived of such a project; only one of his
reputation and wide acquaintance could
have accomplished it.
After discussing the idea with several
people around the state, Webb announced
the project on the editorial page of the
Dallas Morning News on November 17,
1940. "The Handbook of Texas will doubtless
go down as one of the lasting contributions
to learning and popular education in
our time," he predicted. Homer P. Rainey,
president of the University of Texas, offered
support for the project, which he saw
as being of scholarly merit as well as of great
service to the people of Texas. Rainey included
a request for an appropriation for
the project in the University's 1941-1942
budget, and Webb established the Department
of Research in Texas History (now
the Center for Studies in Texas History) to
accomplish his goal. With additional help
from foundations, corporations, and individuals,
he employed editors, researchers,
and support staff. World War II and Webb's
stint as Harmsworth Professor at Oxford
University in 1942-1943 slowed progress,
but the first two volumes of the Handbook,
edited by Webb and H. Bailey Carroll,
were published in 1952; a supplementary
volume edited by Eldon S. Branda, was
published in 1976.
The result: an immediate hit. "The best
systematic work of reference on any of the
fifty United States, an invaluable tool for
the scholar, the journalist, or anyone else."
(Walter Muir Whitehill, director of the
Boston Athenaeum, writing in the Times
Literary Supplement, London). "The highest
standard of scholarship, editing, and
publication and represents local history at
its professional best" (conclusion of The
Yale Experience," in Association of American
University Press', Grant Report, 1970).
The more than 3,000 pages of closely-set,
double-column text contains more than
19,000 articles by more than a thousand
individual scholars: articles on cities, towns,
and counties, physical places, events, and
individuals-every aspect of Texas history.
The public response justified the reviewers'
expectations. Although the book
heavy use was destroying the binding on
the sturdy books. After using the Handbook
extensively during his research on Texas
during the early 1980s, James Michener
proclaimed it to be a "remarkable accomplishment,
the only one of its kind in
America.... It lifts you instantly onto a
higher level of scholarship."
But even as Michener was praising the
successes of the Handbook, he noted its
problems. It was more than thirty years old.
"The entries are intolerably out of date...
Modern scholarship in Texas has come a
long way since the Handbook's publication
in 1952, and the work is now as dated as is
any technological tool of the same vintage."
The state's population had mushroomed,
different industries had moved in,
new technologies had developed. At the
same time, scholarship changed and new
The Gilbert DeBlanc family, Austin, 1921, from the collection of Adah DeBlanc Simond, who has
contributed a number of articles dealing with black history in Texas to the Handbook. Photo courtesy of the
Texas State Historical Association.
was expensive-$30 in 1952-it sold well
from the beginning. It has gone through at
least four editions with more than 20,000
copies of volumes one and two in circulation.
Ten thousand copies of volume three
were printed in 1976, of which less than
2,000 remain. The Handbook immediately
found its way into libraries, classrooms, and
newsrooms and, overnight, became the
most important reference source on Texas.
Librarians ordered multiple copies because
materials became available so that some
classic topics need to be reinterpreted in
the light of this new data. It is equally
apparent that the original Handbook was a
child of its time, emphasizing people and
events of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. As we enter the last decade of
the twentieth century, much of our recent
history needs to be added.
Under the direction of Dr. L. Tuffly
Ellis, the Association began a complete
HERITAGE * WINTER 1990 21
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 8, Number 1, Winter 1990, periodical, Winter 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45426/m1/21/: accessed September 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.