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Digital Encyclopedia Brings Chicago History to Life

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May 11, 2005

The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago — a project of the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library and Northwestern University — presents the city’s history with richness and depth unparalleled by any other resource.

The free, online encyclopedia, at <www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org>, follows in the wake of the critically acclaimed, 1,000 plus-page print edition of The Encyclopedia of Chicago published last fall by the University of Chicago Press. It contains all the material in that $65 book — and a whole lot more.

“The digital encyclopedia differs from its print counterpart in the exponentially expanded amount of material it contains,” said Bob Taylor, director of Northwestern University’s Academic Technologies unit. Taylor oversaw the team of Northwestern University media specialists that developed the Web architecture crucial to the encyclopedia’s success. 

The result is a one-of-a-kind Chicago history resource that’s as easy to use as it is to find celery salt on a Chicago-style hot dog. And, ultimately, it’s a meatier Chicago experience.

Like its print counterpart, the electronic encyclopedia presents thousands of entries on Chicago subjects from AIDS to Zoroastrians. But the digital edition also offers access to more than 1,300 historical sources. Digitized at “archive resolution” quality, these historic sources – photographs, documents, maps and ephemera from the last three centuries — can be scrutinized and manipulated in ways only the Web allows.

In addition, the electronic encyclopedia includes new and specially commissioned works of scholarship by Ann Durkin Keating and Carl Smith, two preeminent scholars of Chicago history. In authoring interpretive digital essays about the 1909 Plan of Chicago and about the role of water in Chicago’s social and cultural development, they fully incorporate the Web’s multi-media capacities.

The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago was edited by Janice L. Reiff, associate professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles; Ann Durkin Keating, professor of history at North Central College in Naperville; and James R. Grossman, vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library and visiting professor of history at the University of Chicago. All have published books on history-related subjects and served as editors of the print encyclopedia.

“We are delighted that this day has come,” said Chicago Historical Society president Lonnie Bunch. “Our goal is to make the history of Chicago available to the widest possible audience, and the electronic encyclopedia lets us do that to an extent undreamed of in the past.

By providing many of the primary documents that underpin the A to Z entries, the digital encyclopedia is not only a repository of information. It is a powerful research tool.”

Professor Reiff first envisioned the electronic publication when the Newberry Library began work in the early 1990s on the print encyclopedia. “Knowing there would be an electronic version really changed how we approached the project,” said Newberry vice president and editor Grossman.

Together, the three institutions created a user-friendly resource that connects tens of thousands of pages of visual materials and text in a sensible, relational framework.

Innovative Viewing Tools Make History Come Alive

Custom-designed, innovative viewing tools developed by Northwestern’s Academic Technologies group include a zoom function that gives users the opportunity to significantly enlarge details of photographs, maps and other historical materials while maintaining their focus and clarity.

“As a result, photos taken in the late 19th century of seemingly faceless individuals reveal not only their facial features, but details of their dress, vehicles and housing,” said Chicago Historical Society historian Sarah Marcus. As electronic encyclopedia project director, she guided the encyclopedia’s transition from a print to digital resource and coordinated development of new materials.

Using the zoom tool, the digital encyclopedia explorer can easily read an 1895 hand-written petition urging the governor to create a public bathing beach on Lake Michigan. Social historians can closely examine and put into context a 1908 poster titled “$acred Motherhood,” which depicts an overworked mother combining domestic and factory duties with dire results. Protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention may even discover themselves, friends or acquaintances in a newspaper photograph taken in those tumultuous days.

A 1942 photograph of women workers at Glenview’s Baxter Laboratories shows them banding medical bottles for the armed forces. With the zoom tool, one can read the government employee contract on the wall behind them.

Documents can be read in their entirety or viewed in original format

A tool called the bound volume viewer developed by Northwestern’s Academic Technologies group enables users to read approximately 200 multi-paged documents in the format in which they originally appeared or easily peruse them page-by-page or from one section to another.

Among the documents lending themselves to such scrutiny are the entire (268-page) “1909 Plan of Chicago” and the 63-page “Wacker’s Manual,” which promoted Burnham’s plan and was required reading for Chicago public school children.

Other examples are a 1929 letter and restrictive covenant banning  “colored people” from purchasing, using or residing in the Auburn Park District; the entire 1837 Act of Incorporation for the City of Chicago; and an album chronicling the creation of the Sanitary and Ship Canal from 1892 to 1900 and celebrating the ingenuity of the engineers who reversed the Chicago River.

Hyperlinks, or clickable text links, in the encyclopedia’s 1,400 plus entries can move “readers” in a flash from one related subject to related entries, photographs, drawings, maps, catalogues, advertisements, newspapers, posters, letters, magazine articles, journals, and legal and government documents. 

Because it otherwise could be easy for users to get lost in this resource-rich collection, Northwestern’s media specialists also created a “breadcrumb trail feature” that appears on every page and allows users to easily retrace their “virtual” steps. In addition, each Web page contains a navigation bar pointing visitors to the many ways the encyclopedia can be explored, to related subjects and historical sources, and to a highly comprehensible user’s guide that makes navigating the encyclopedia simple.

Interpretive digital essays and “rich maps” exploit the possibilities of the Web

In her interpretive digital essay on “Chicago and Water,” Encyclopedia co-editor Keating made use of previously neglected sources  — many of which now are available in the electronic encyclopedia — to explore the role of water in the city’s development and cultural life.

An in-depth essay about the 1909 Plan of Chicago by Carl Smith, Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of American Studies at Northwestern University, examines the roots of Daniel Burnham’s visionary plan for the city, its marketing and implementation, and its impact on the city’s built environment over almost 100 years.

“The Burnham Plan essay includes text, galleries of digitized primary source materials, and dynamic maps that together provide an understanding of the plan that simply could not take shape in print format,” said Northwestern University’s Taylor. “Dynamic maps enable users to visually compare the recommendations of the 1909 plan with the realities of Chicago’s built environment in Burnham’s day, today and periods in between.”

A “rich map” of Prairie Avenue – a collaboration between coeditor Janice Reiff, Douglas Knox of the Newberry and Professor Michael Conzen  — presents the changes that occurred on that street between 1853 and 2003. By tracking 57 homes and estates, including the mansions of Marshall Field, George Pullman and other 19th century business giants, the map vividly tells the story of the street’s deterioration.

Prairie Avenue comes alive not only through text and maps but also via photographs, newspaper articles, personal letters and other documents of and about the elite who once lived there. The narrative continues through to the mid to late 20th century when the once elegant avenue became the province of light industry and vacant, untended lots.

A “rich map” of labor unrest tells a different story. With 205 clickable “hot spots,” it marks the location of all labor unrest that occurred the week leading to and including May 4, 1886, the day of the Haymarket tragedy. The “hot spots” connect users to information about each highlighted labor action, including census and business data, union materials, flyers, photographs, posters and actual newspaper accounts of the day.

The labor map makes use of a rare five-volume 1886 atlas created by the Robinson Fire Insurance Company for use by the fire insurance industry. Consisting of more than 100 individual plates, the Robinson maps provide a wealth of information, including the location, footprint and building materials of every Chicago structure, whether or not a street was paved, and the location of water cisterns.

Using a method pioneered by Northwestern University media specialists, Taylor’s team “stitched” together the atlas’s 128 plates. The result is an enormous (3.3 gigabyte) single image map that allows users to follow any street in Chicago from its beginning to its end.

The encyclopedia also includes a highly interactive year-to-year history of Chicago, a timeline, a biography of famous (and dead) Chicagoans, and an index of leading Chicago businesses.