Before There Was Google, There Was Whitman’s Answer Book

Do you have desk toys? Like a magnet set, koosh ball, maybe the ever-popular drinking bird?

No? Well, you should. Along with my popular and ever-present desk snack (AKA a jar kept full of jelly beans) I’ve always had a collection of little trinkets for my office-mates to futz with when we are meeting.

Recently, I’ve added a new item that I found when inventorying a collection from a Jewish store in Lake Providence, Louisiana. The store was called Galanty’s (you may remember this place as the one where the prosthetic leg came from earlier this summer). Last fall I went on a collecting trip, conducting an oral history of the family whose father owned the store, and picking up dozens of old store fixtures and merchandise that represented the rich history of the impact the family business had on the town.

One thing that’s always a perk of being a part of a collecting institution is coming across trinkets not meant to be accessioned into our collection. They were clearing the store when I came to collect, and in addition to museum donations already set aside, they said I could take whatever I liked for myself.

And so a little piece of history ended up on my desk: “Whitman’s Answer Book.”

“Whitman’s Answer Book” is a “thousand fact reference with a daily memo diary.” It’s from 1938. This little book is essentially Google before Google. Before we relied on the Internet in our pocket to answer every question about what movie that actor was in or the capital of West Virginia, this little book fit into your pocket to answer all sorts of queries.

I put it on my desk, and put it to the test.

The 1938 World Religious Group populations noted in Whitman's Answer Book.
The 1938 World Religious Group populations noted in Whitman’s Answer Book.

In the month since it’s been there, many of my coworkers at the ISJL have curiously flipped through it. Items of note:Famous Tunnels! Order of Presidential Succession! State Birds! I bet sneaking a peek into this book would be really helpful during pub quiz.

But then, my supervisor Michele flipped to a page that caught her attention — and mine: World Religious Groups. There, right between ship watches and wedding anniversary gifts was a moment frozen in time, in 1938, where the page indicated the Jewish population was 15 million, with over 9 million Jews living in Europe.

Historians will often use raw data like census documents or financial records to formulate a narrative about a certain period in time, but this small number, without any interpretation or explanation, just presented as a fact that one would carry around in their pocket in case they needed it, weighs especially heavy considering we know a few years later the number would be drastically smaller after the events of the Holocaust.

It forces us to consider what facts and figures, if any, can remain unwavering truths in our modern world. Grammar rules, state capitals and birthstones can probably be printed without frequent edits, but this little book made me stop to consider the realities of our growing or diminishing communities. This trinket has taken on more meaning, and reminded me why we collect the artifacts and preserve the history that we do.

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