Isabelle Backouche. L'histoire urbaine en France (Moyen-Age-XXe siecle). Guide bibliographique 1965-1996. Paris and Montreal: L'Harmattan, 1998. 189 pp. 180 FF (cloth), ISBN 978-2-7384-6811-6.
Reviewed by Pierre Yves Saunier ( Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Lyons, France)
Published on H-Urban (September, 1999)
How many are we to have sacrificed ourselves on the altars of science and community to produce one of those books called bibliographies? Few. It is difficult to imagine some more tedious work than the task to compile, index and set in order a huge number of articles and books. Yet, it is also difficult to imagine more practical and useful volumes than the ones we find in the reference rooms of our libraries. Certainly, our American colleagues, used to the quick searches offered by such powerful commercial bibliographical databases as Worldcat, Rlin and others, may lose the sense of gratitude that we owe to the ones who take the responsability of editing a bibliography, as the last warriors of a vanishing tradition. We Europeans must pay our tribute to our paper bibliographers (especially when our university library has burned, as in Lyon).
As far as urban historians of France are especially concerned, they could rely on the bibliography that the journal Urban history has published since 1974, and that has been collected by Richard Rodger, the journal editor, in its A Consolidated Bibliography of Urban History (Ipswich: Scolar Press, 1996). Yet, as impressive were the references gathered in the 963 pages of the book, the scholar of France was not always happy with the many typing mistakes, or with the time span of the french bibliography that largely left aside the medieval period. This is one of the reasons to rejoice the arrival of of Isabelle Backouche's L'histoire urbaine en France (Moyen-Age-XXe siecle). Guide bibliographique 1965-1996. Isabelle Backouche, who is now in charge of the French section of the Urban History yearly bibliography has significantly revised the corpus in two ways: first by correcting the typos and errors, secondly by adding recent or old works that had been forgotten during the yearly collects. This has been done with the help of other bibliographers, especially for the Middle Ages. The 3167 references included in her book are made usable through place and authors indexes, and are classified according to the now classical Urban History frame. One can certainly discuss the accuracy of such a canvas, but it is good to have a kind of standard to ease the research of bibliographical references.
For sure, the book reflects the voluntary aspects of the bibliography gathered by Urban History for years: the bibliographers have changed, applied different processes of working, different principles sometimes, and inevitably favored their period of expertise. Some publications about France, but written in foreign languages, are included, some others not, etc. For sure, many will complain that their own work is not fully present in the book, and that the seminal essay on the history of plaster walls they had published in the Cahiers du Canton de Rochefort-Sud was forgotten. But what do we expect from a bibliography? Are we naive enough to think that an exhaustive bibliography is even possible? In the beginning of our century, the belgian Paul Otlet had this dream in Brussels, and he died in 1944 in the sadness of unachievement, without having seen the end of his Bibliographie Internationale Universelle . This should be a lesson for all the maniacs of universality. The pipe dream of complete bibliographies has been, I hoped, shut straight by the growth of the WWW. No use to complain then. Then every bibliography is a present, to be unwrapped with pleasure, knowing that it will provide a sort of first help kit that we will have to complete by our own research from footnote to footnote, from database to card index. Published bibliographies are not made to chew the work, but to provide some first directions that the scholar can follow.
Thus the main shortcoming of the book is certainly not the holes or oversights. In fact, after a short use of the book, the main problem seems to be the weakness of the index. Its efficacy sometimes does not run further than the family name. First, only the first letter of the first name is mentioned, which is not that serious but can hurt if you wish to know the full identity of an author to write him a love letter or to sound clever and well acquainted in academic conversations. But, more seriously, different persons are put under the same hat. At "Clark P.", the index indicates five items, but three were written by "J.G." Clark. If we consider the name of Chaline, one of those French academic dynasties that the world envies us, the index suggests seven items for "Chaline O.". The reader might be amazed by the fruitfulness of the younger member of the dynasty. A closer scrutiny of the bibliography, however, reveals that only one item has been committed by "O.", when three were written by "J.P.", two by "C." and one by "Cl.". Of course, the point is not that some of the members of the family have been deprived of appearance in the index, but that the user of the bibliography might get upset about these mixed identities. Though homonymy is not that common, it is clear that this index must be revised and completed . Nevertheless, the book that Isabelle Backouche offers has already achieved its goal: to be a tool for the development of the urban history of France.
. W.Boyd Rayward, The universe of information. The work of Paul Otlet for documentation and international organisation, Moscow: FID, 1975
. An erratum has been produced that is said to correct these index problems, but it was not included in the review copy that this reviewer received.
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Pierre Yves Saunier. Review of Backouche, Isabelle, L'histoire urbaine en France (Moyen-Age-XXe siecle). Guide bibliographique 1965-1996.
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