In our second installment of Digital Summer School, Amanda Seligman, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee historian and co-founder of the online project the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE), discusses the challenges, triumphs, and goals of the EMKE.
Twitter handle for EMKE: @MkeEncyclopedia
Why did you establish this digital project and who is your audience?
Urban history encyclopedias have been around for two generations. The first major U.S. project, the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, started with a print edition and transitioned into the digital environment. Smaller Midwestern cities (Indianapolis, Louisville) and the largest cities in the US (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles) followed suit. Some projects were print-only (New York, Los Angeles), some were hybrid (Chicago), and some are born digital (Philadelphia). The two of us who are lead editors on the project (Margo Anderson and Amanda Seligman) both had previous experience with historical encyclopedias—Anderson on the US census and me with Chicago. As scholars, we know how convenient it is to have access to short, focused analyses of specific topics. It can be a big timesaver for researchers—but only if they are confident in the reliability of the encyclopedia. We also knew that Milwaukeeans are passionate about their history and believed that Milwaukee deserved an authoritative, scholarly encyclopedia of its own. We also hope that students and scholars who are researching Milwaukee will turn to the EMKE to support their projects.
What do you hope people take away from it?
We have three major goals for our readers. First, we want to be a starting point for research on the Milwaukee area. We have worked hard to unlock history from archives and libraries, which non-scholars may find intimidating or not even realize exist. But we don’t want to be an end point; we want to inspire our readers to go deeper. Our entries have “for further reading” suggestions and footnotes to guide readers to new sources. To that end, once we realized how much material has been produced on Milwaukee over the past century and a half, we also published a spin-off print project, a Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee (Marquette University Press, 2014) based on the work of one of the first graduate students who came to work on the project.
Finally, we want our readers to leave the project with a stronger sense of how history is written. We developed what we call the “Underbook,” which readers can access by clicking on the “Explore More” button at the end of some entries. In addition to the footnotes and bonus images, right now the Underbook contains “Understories,” a genre we invented for this project. Understories narrate the process of research, so that readers learn about how historians know what we know. One of my favorites is underneath the “Borchert Field” entry. It was written by a student who went from my history methods class to being an undergraduate and then graduate fact-checker for the project. I like his piece, “How Microfilm and the Internet Get Along: A Demonstration,” so much that I assign it to new groups of history methods students. It helps them see that new information storage technologies do not necessarily undermine old ones. I was also really proud of the first undergraduate who did image research for the project. A few years after leaving us, she turned her Understory—about a mysterious postcard showing what she called “Baby Hammocks”—into her own digital history master’s project at George Mason University. To me, these two pieces illustrate exactly the kind of articulation of research and teaching that universities are meant to produce.
How did the project come to fruition? What obstacles did you have to overcome?
I’m not sure it has “come to fruition” quite yet. As of this interview in mid-June, we have 334 entries live, 105 entries scheduled for release, 115 entries waiting to be scheduled, and about 150 entries working their ways through our editorial process. We also have a Research Assistant hard at work identifying images to accompany the entries (a process that has completely changed since we first envisioned it, thanks to librarians digitizing their collections). The first phase of the project will feel more finished when we have gotten all those entries out and illustrated, and have cross-referenced all the content, loaded the maps, and made some technical tweaks to our platform (like fending off the increasing number Russian bots who keep registering as if they planned to leave comments for our site).
Obstacles? Even for experienced research-oriented scholars, putting together an enormous encyclopedia as a first digital history project has a lot in common with doing prelim exams and writing a dissertation—every aspect of this project has been a learning process, most of them with steep learning curves. First of all, there is simply a huge amount of new content to think about. But it also has involved coming to terms with work processes that ten years ago we were not only unfamiliar with but did not really know existed. When we started in 2008, I didn’t even know the terms “metadata” or “project management,” words that I throw around every day now. Nor did we have a clear path to raising the $3 million (a goal later lowered to $2 million) that we expected it would cost to build and staff the project. I’m so grateful to all the people and institutions who have shown their confidence in us by investing their time and money in the project.
Where do you hope it goes in the future?
We hope that the project gets more deeply institutionalized in Milwaukee. When I talk to donors and public audiences, I tell them that having an urban history encyclopedia for our region is like having an art museum, an opera company, a zoo, or a baseball team (all of which Milwaukee has and of course are covered in the EMKE). We want to the EMKE to be a basic civic institution in the Milwaukee area.
To get to that point, there is a lot more work to do. We need to build our public relationships through in-person networking and social media; to build out our non-text content with more images, digitized primary sources, and static and GIS maps; and we need to solicit and consider a lot more feedback through our public comment capacity. Fortunately, we continue to find excellent students who see doing this work as a worthwhile part of their education.
When did you start to consider yourself a digital historian?
I have struggled with a lot of imposter syndrome over accepting the label “digital historian.” One of the first times I asked myself whether I was a digital historian, I ran smack into a suggestion that I couldn’t possibly count unless I knew how to code. Several years into the project, my departmental colleagues and I decided it was unethical to fail to train our students in digital history, and I drew the straw that gave me the chance to teach the graduate seminar (at least until we hired someone I considered a real digital historian onto the faculty). Even when teaching that course, I blogged about it as “The Reluctant Digital Historian.”
But despite my self-doubt, “real” digital historians and Twitterstorians have consistently offered warm welcomes into the club and affirmation that my work matters. The beauty of digital history is that—like history in general and unlike, say, mathematics or language—none of us is born with an intuition about the contents or how to do it. Working on the project gives us a chance to learn a bit more than we already know. Where I have come to at this point is that anyone who uses any kind of digital tool to understand or create historical knowledge is standing under the digital history umbrella. This even includes some of the EMKE authors who aren’t particularly tech savvy. Some struggle with how to make their word processors create hanging indents so that bibliographic entries are properly formatted and some send their entries in by email because they don’t want to bother with the backend system our IT team built to organize our workflow (I have only dealt with one entirely non-digital author, whom I located by phone and who sent in a typescript text). It also includes me. By now I have learned enough code to fix—or at least diagnose—minor problems that crop up, and just this week I am trying to learn how to use WordPress to format our tables. There are so many different kinds of digital history skills and platforms that no one person is going to master them all, just like no one historian can know the history of the whole world in real depth. What makes a project like ours functional is bringing together people with complementary skills, each of us knowing or learning a couple of pieces, so that we can somehow manage to pull the whole thing off. History, and digital history, are collective projects.
Amanda Seligman (@AmandaISeligman) is Professor of History and Urban Studies and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has taught since 1999. She holds an AB in Classics from Princeton University and a PhD in History from Northwestern University. She is author or coauthor of four books, most recently of Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City (2016). She is also a co-editor of the Historical Studies of Urban America series published by the University of Chicago Press.
Featured image (at top): Sign for the Milwaukee Public Market, a popular shopping venue and gathering place in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin neighborhood called the Historic Third Ward, Carol M. Highsmith, August 28, 2016, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.