LOIS A. KRIEGER
'LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS'
LIBRARIANS covering a busy reference desk have to be prepared for anything. In a single hour, we may be asked questions on nineteenth-century foreign missionaries, Elizabethan drama, the green revolution, and sports psychology. But the queries that are guaranteed to make us catch our breath are those that begin 'I need to find statistics on . . .' In many cases, the answers are not difficult to find, although it is one of the immutable laws of librarianship that the information in a statistical reference source usually stops just short of what is needed. If a student wants figures for 1890, the Census Bureau started tallying that category in 1900; if the researcher needs data for small towns, the tables begin with places of population above ten thousand.
The trickiest questions are those involving comparative statistics, and the trickiest of comparative statistics queries are those involving monetary values. A recent article in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society1 provides a useful discussion of the problem and includes an appendix listing consumer price indexes in the United States from 1700 to 1991; the text also gives an example of the mathematical process using these price indexes to determine comparable values (pp. 312-313). But the author warns that the formula is not the last word. His example is the cost of housing: How much did someone pay in 1987 to buy a house that had sold for $1O,OOO in 1953? According to the price index mathematical calculations, the answer is $42,500; but during that period housing costs rose much more than those of most other commodities, and the real answer is more like $55,000.
Another recent article, this one in the New Yorker,2 makes a similar point in discussing 'the insane prices' of the art market in the nineteen-eighties. The major issue is 'how to arrive at currency-conversion rates that will show . . . what 1880 pounds or francs or dollars were actually worth in terms of their 1992: purchasing power.' The author comes to the wise conclusion, supported by several authorities in the field, that 'there are too many imponderable elements to permit precise calculations' (p. 136).
However, students would be ill-advised to quote this statement in a paper or final examination. We have, on occasion, asked an economics professor for advice in determining comparative monetary values and once even called the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington (the person we spoke with was just as confused as we were, possibly because figures for the year or commodity in question were not readily available). The researcher can use the price index tables in the StatisticalAbstract of the United States or in the Proceedings article--but he or she must study carefully primary and secondary sources concerning the time period to be aware of contemporary social and economic conditions that might affect the calculations.
2.Calvin Tomkins, 'The Art Market: Going . . . Going . . . Gone,' New Yorker (14 Decemberl99z), I36-138. The two books that Tomkins refers to are Peter Watson, From Manet to Manhattan: 7he Rise of the Modern Art Market (New York: Random House, 1992) and Gerald Reirlinger, The Economics of Taste, 3 vols. (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1961-1970).