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Manitoba History: Review: D. A. Muise (editor), A Reader’s Guide to Canadian History

by Michael R. Angel
Elizabeth Dafoe Library, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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A Reader’s Guide to Canadian History. Toronto: University Press, 1982. Vol. 1, ed. D. A. Muise, xv, 253 pp. ISBN 0-8020-6442-6. Vol. 2, ed. J. L. Granatstein and Paul Stevens, xiv, 329 pp. ISBN 0-8020-6490-6.

Twenty years ago there was little need for a current bibliographic guide to Canadian history, for the amount of written material was limited in scope and quantity. Today, there are new fields of study, and new approaches, new journals, and new major works in almost every one of them. It is this vast amount of material, most of it published within the last decade, which the editors of this new two-volume bibliography attempt to handle.

The volumes are intended to provide the general reader, student, and teacher with a critical introduction to main items in various fields. Most of the publications discussed are scholarly. A few popular histories are included, but no works written specifically for schools. Recognized scholars provide a total of eighteen bibliographic essays on different aspects of Canadian history. Generally the editors have succeeded in their goal, although as with any composite work, some sections of the books are better than others.

The first volume, which encompasses pre-confederation history, is divided into six sections, each dealing with a geographical region of the country. Each section is further divided into a number of themes. Perhaps because the subject matter of the work is more manageable and the authors less diverse, this volume seems to hold together better than the second volume covering post-confederation Canada. The latter book, previously published as Canada since 1867: a bibliographic guide, has been considerably enlarged in coverage. It is divided into twelve sections reflecting thematic and regional treatments of Canadian history. The approaches of the authors vary considerably from section to section, and there is a fair amount of overlapping of subject matter—which is not altogether a bad thing.

Although all the authors provide a critical evaluation of the titles they include, what is striking is the much more historiographic approach of the French-Canadian historians. In fact, a reader looking for a basic introduction to the major schools of French and English historical writing will find that both are covered most fully in Ouellet’s essay on Quebec! While some of the English-Canadian historians such as Abella and Stetler attempt to define briefly the new sub-disciplines of labour and urban history, and to give some indication of the different approaches, other authors make little effort to place the works within their intellectual context. This is unfortunate, for a more historigraphic approach would have provided better insights into the general state of the sub-discipline and its literature.

This is not a major problem, however, for most of the writers do provide clear and succinct introductions. The structure of the volumes allows readers to delve into Canadian history from any number of vantage points. Especially interesting is the cross-fertilization of ideas that is apparent despite the growing tendency to compartmentalize the study of Canadian history. Thus, for instance, the same works may be reviewed in the context of social history, urban history, and the history of the prairie provinces. Unfortunately, there are no author or title indexes. This severely limits the usefulness of the set as a reference work. Sketchy subject indexes add little to the already very detailed tables of contents. Comprehensive author-title indexes could well have replaced the subject indexes.

Although a fair number of the authors of the different sections do mention the journals important to their field, a separate bibliographic essay describing the scope and nature of the major journals in Canadian history would have been very useful to the neophyte. The principal audience for these guides is not as aware of the journals as scholars in each field are. Moreover, the increasing importance of periodical literature makes it vital for students and teachers to become informed about it.

The stylistic format and the editorial accuracy of the books are commendable. They are attractive, easy to read, and relatively free of bothersome bibliographic errors. What is more they are not expensive! This is a set of books which should occupy the shelves of everyone interested in the study of Canadian history.

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