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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Exploring Polar Frontiers: A Historical Encyclopedia

by William James Mills

ISBN: 1 57607 422 6 Print
ISBN: 1 57607 423 4 E-book
Price: US$185/£129 Print
US$200/£??? E-book
US$290/£??? Both

This two-volume encyclopaedia of Arctic and Antarctic exploration reaches as far back as 325 BC and provides a comprehensive reference resource right up to the twenty-first century. The author is William Mills, librarian and keeper of collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute, the world's premiere polar library, with contributions by David Clammer (who has also written for this website), Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Jenny Mai Handford, Rear Admiral John Myres, Geoff Renner and David Stam.

Being part Norwegian, the first entry I turned to was Amundsen - mainly to see whether there was a bias with reference to his beating Scott to the South Pole. There was none; a perfectly fair account. I was impressed to find that this entry covered several pages and gave a full account of Amundsen's achievements.

Entries cover the obvious famous names and places, others not so famous but equally interesting, plus subjects as varied as dogs, drifting ice stations, the Hudson's Bay Company, inuit contributions, libraries, Pomor contributions and women explorers.

A list of relevant cross-references is given at the end of entries, and sometimes within the text itself. The advantage of the e-book over the printed version is, of course, the speed at which one refers to other entries.

Most entries have a reference and further reading section. I do not know what the criteria were for making the selection - Amundsen, for example, has only four books listed, yet there has been so much written about him. Obviously space is at a premium for a publication such as this and it must have been difficult to decide which books warranted inclusion above the others.

As one would expect from a publication that has had access to the Scott Polar Research Institute's picture library, there are numerous fascinating illustrations, including photographs, drawings and woodcuts. There are several other sources of illustrations, too. To appreciate these fully, I personally prefer to have the printed edition rather than to look at them on screen.

The 20 maps are uniformly clear and simple, having been drawn specifically for this publication. They are not, however, topographical and therefore one does not get the sense of the terrain that the explorers encountered - but then neither did they have any such advantages before setting out on their intrepid expeditions!

In addition to the main alphabetical section, there is a list of entries in chronological order (fascinating to compare the nineteenth and twentieth centuries!) and entries listed by category. There is a comprehensive glossary, a chronology or 'timeline' of expeditions, which I found particularly interesting and an extensive bibliography. A general index completes the work.

One aspect that slightly irritates me is the American spelling: airplanes instead of aeroplanes, coleader instead of co-leader, farthest instead of furthest, catalogs instead of catalogues. Yes, I know this is produced by an American publisher, but the author is British, and as an editor working in the UK publishing industry I have always had to respect American authors' spelling - 'It's their language,' I was once told. Quite right - what about ours? And the subtitle should read 'An historical encyclopaedia'.

One of the first purchasers of Exploring Polar Frontiers was a reader of this website, based in New Jersey. She wrote to me:

Having spent every night last week totally engrossed in this monumental work, I can tell you that it is not only the best reference document on Arctic/Antarctic expeditions that I have ever read, but it offers the thrill of discovering amazing facts and entries about exciting expeditions previously unknown to many of us who enjoy the legendary tales of polar exploration.

What better recommendation could this book have?

The cover is excellent: a striking modern design showing a celebration of achievement in the form of an old photograph, together with the prow of an anonymous ship ploughing through an icefield.

This book is indeed a treasure.

Reviewed by Solveig Gardner Servian




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