Monday, September 6, 2010

Just the facts: a look at almanacs

by Christine Bulson

Encyclopaedia Britannica Almanac, 2003. 2002. 1,184 p. Encyclopaedia Britannica, $19.95 (0-85229-833-1); paper, $10.95 (0-85229-923-0).

The New York Times Almanac, 2003. By John W. Wright. 2002. 998 p. Penguin, paper, $11.95 (0-14-200169-4).

Time Almanac, 2003: With Information Please. Ed. by Borgia Brunner. 2002. 1,039 p. Time, $31.95 (1-929049-87-0); paper, $10.99 (1-929049-95-1).

The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2003. By Ken Park. 2002. 1,002 p. World Almanac Educational, $31.95 (0-88687-883-7); paper ($11.95 (0-88687-882-9).

Almanacs have long been a staple of the library’s ready-reference shelf. This year the traditional almanac field of three (The New York Times Almanac, Time Almanac [formerly Information Please], and The World Almanac and Book of Facts) is joined by Encyclopaedia Britannica Almanac.

The World Almanac and Book of Facts is the grande dame, with a first publication in 1868 and published annually since 1886. Time Almanac began as the Information Please Almanac in 1947 with a title change in 1999 when the company, now part of the Family Education Network, teamed with Time, Inc., publishers of Time magazine, to produce a “new” almanac. The origin of this almanac was a radio show, “Information, Please” that aired from 1938 to 1952, where listeners tried to stump panelists. The title is now Time Almanac: With Information Please, reflecting the participating publishers. The New York Times Almanac evolved from the Universal Almanac, which began publication in 1990 and was discontinued in 1997. The editor, John Wright, who owned the rights to the content, convinced the newspaper to join with him to publish another “new” almanac.

Publishers say the Internet age has not diminished the popularity of almanacs in print form. World now sells more than one million volumes annually. And reference librarians still consider the print version of an almanac a favorite source for concise, current, quick information.

It is interesting to compare the basics contents of almanacs. For an eternity (or so it seemed) the index of World was in the front. This year it is at the end of the volume! The Time index was in the back until 1987, when it was moved to the front, where it remains. Both of the other almanacs have the index at the end. All four have some type of table of contents in the front. Time’s is a keyword and section index. A block of color pictures reflecting the events of the previous year appears in all of the almanacs except The New York Times. A variety of colored maps are in all the volumes, and country flags are in all except The New York Times. The arrangement of topics is similar at least in the front, with all the almanacs starting with news of the year, top ten news stories, or late-breaking news. Although all of the almanacs have the year 2003 in the title, the usual cut off date is late October. The New York Times and Time include results of the 2002 elections, and these two and World include Nobel recipients for 2002. However, Britannica includes events only through June 2002.

Britannica and World have the best selection of recommended Web sites arranged by broad subjects. Britannica and The New York Times have a list of airlines by on-time performance. Each almanac has a section on the countries of the world, with all giving the percentage of Arabs in Lebanon as 95 percent except Britannica, which gives a figure of 93 percent from 1996. Britannica is the only almanac that does not have a section on major cities in the U.S. Time is the only one that lists percentages by sex (48.1 percent of the population in Boston is men). Two of the almanacs (Britannica and Time) use 2000 population figures for the U.S.; the other two use 2001 estimates. Only The New York Times does not include a section on inventions. A list of U.S. colleges and universities is considered a necessary inclusion by this reviewer but is found only in Time and World. The Time list is less useful because the colleges are only listed by state.

What are the pluses and minuses for each almanac? Britannica capitalizes on it’s publisher’s reputation and has a number of “greats” chosen by the editors – authors, inventions, Web sites, films, orchestras, and the most influential leaders of all times. There are also a number of “Did You Know” boxes, including the facts that windshield wipers and laser printers were invented by women. In addition to colored maps of the world, a locator map accompanies each country description. Essays similar to what can be found in an encyclopedia treat lighthouses, several diseases, and a number of other topics. The minus for this almanac is the relative lack of currency.

The New York Times is the least attractive almanac, with narrow margins, thin paper, and lots of text. There are excerpts from articles from the newspaper in some sections (“Time in Focus”) and seven pages of statistics on immigration in the U.S. Time has some unique features, such as “Seventy-five Years of Great People” – Time magazine’s persons of the year. Association with the magazine is stressed in other ways, with an introduction to each topic written by a Time reporter. There is a crossword puzzle guide with lists of words by number of letter s, Old Testament names, etc.

The World Almanac certainly has name recognition and has sold more than 80 million copies since 1868. In the last five years “Quick Quiz” and “It’s a Fact” boxes have been added, and there are annual special features – “The Elderly” and seven fact-filled pages on all aspects of terrorism can be found in this year’s edition. Trivia still abounds, with statistics on vehicle miles per licensed driver by state, a transplant waiting list by type of organ, the harness horse of the year from 1947 to 2001, and the components of the Dow Jones Averages as of last fall.

The price, size, and number pages for each almanac are about equal, so which is best? Of course all reviewers (see any online bookstore) have their personal preferences based on their interests, eyesight, etc., but this reviewer-librarian still chooses The World Almanac and Book of Facts as number one in terms of coverage, currency, and usability, with Time Almanac providing serious competition.

Christine Bulson recently retired from Milne Library, SUNY Oneonta, New York.

(Booklist/May 15, 2003)

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