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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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“We were creating something important,” says Timothy Sachs, development editor for Oxford University Press, of the publisher’s Encyclopedia of Human Rights (2009). It was partly in recognition of the importance of the topic that the Encyclopedia was awarded the 2010 Dartmouth Medal honoring “the creation of a reference work of unusual quality and significance.” The Dartmouth Medal Committee called it “a major contribution to the literature of human rights,” and the Reference Books Bulletin review called it “a vital resource on one of the most important topics of our time.”
Although the content was harrowing, editor-in-chief David P. Forsythe (Charles J. Mach Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Nebraska–Lincoln) says it was “satisfying to produce a reference work that notes the development of human rights and humanitarian law, and the efforts to see that law implemented.” Sachs says he enjoyed working with Forsythe, the editorial board, and the hundreds of expert contributors who agreed to take on challenging topics with tight deadlines and responded to revision requests with grace. He describes the Encyclopedia as a “balanced and objective analysis of human rights topics that fulfilled a genuine need—not just in the market but in the world.” Forsythe adds that the contributors “provided a service to human rights knowledge and education. Everyone was busy with teaching, research, and journalism, and yet they took time to make serious contributions.” He notes that “in academe, writing encyclopedia entries is not all that highly valued. It does not get you tenured or promoted. And yet so many quality scholars and journalists and practitioners contributed because they believed in human rights, in human rights education, and in helping students and the public understand the issues and challenges.”
When asked about memorable articles, Forsythe cited “pieces that could stand alone as major contributions to the subject—for example, the entry on the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire. I was also struck by how some authors could take a standard subject and do something new and insightful with it—for example, the entries on the Holocaust, on Hitler, on Martin Luther King Jr. I was equally impressed by how some authors could take a complicated subject and do an excellent overview in concise fashion—for example, the entry on human rights in Russia. Some entries clearly showed that the author had a masterful, first-rate knowledge of the subject—for example, Sir Nigel Rodley on torture.”
Knowing that their team had produced a first-rate work did not lessen Forsythe’s and Sachs’s excitement upon winning the Dartmouth Medal. Sachs remembers that he and Forsythe “had just gotten through commissioning and approving the very last entries—always an exhausting process. It was only then, once all his work was complete, that Forsythe asked about what awards and honors we might be in the running for. I mentioned that the Dartmouth Medal was the highest honor possible. When the Dartmouth was announced, I read the press release from my computer at home. I jumped out of the chair I was so happy. The medal honors the work of hundreds of individuals who put so much time and energy into covering this vitally important topic in a way that is objective, balanced, and accessible to a broad readership.” Forsythe added that he was “very gratified that so much hard work by so many people had been recognized.”
The Encyclopedia is available in print and in the Oxford Digital Reference Shelf. When asked how his team created a reference source that will remain timely in the volatile human rights milieu, Sachs responded that “the Encyclopedia’s emphasis on critical analysis ensures that it will be useful for years to come.” To complement the set’s analyses with current data, Forsythe recommends the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights country reports. “This set of documents is remarkably reliable,” Forsythe explains, “in part because Congress and human rights NGOs critique obvious errors. The Web site of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is increasingly valuable as a pathway to human rights information. The Web site of the International Committee of the Red Cross is a gold mine of information about humanitarian law and diplomacy. Freedom House does an annual statistical analysis of civil and political rights around the world. The UN Human Development Index is relevant and deals with rights other than just civil and political. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch produce online reports that are read in elite circles. The University of Minnesota has an excellent virtual library on human rights.”
“It can be challenging to convince prominent scholars to write for reference works,” Sachs notes. “The experts who signed on to this project did so as hundreds of individual acts of community service.” Forsythe says that he found it satisfying “to produce a reference work that reflects the commitment of many people to human rights knowledge and education, and to finally see that reference work available for students and others.”
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