Digital Encyclopedia Aims to be About All Things Virginia

July 29, 2009

July 30, 2009 — Want to know about the history of Massive Resistance, women's suffrage, the Wreck of the Old 97 or other topics of history, government, economics, culture and the people in Virginia? Visit Encyclopedia Virginia.

The free and interactive electronic resource, an endeavor of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, was launched in November with content covering 20th-century history, literature and the Civil War.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

The education resource provides a valuable tool for the education community, according to Matthew Gibson, the project's managing editor.

"The main audience is the education community – teachers and students of all ages," he said. "When you produce something on the Web, it's never contained by your audience. It's out there for everyone to use, especially with a free, publicly accessible resource like the encyclopedia."

You won't find entries about Thomas Jefferson or Robert E. Lee – yet. The project is still in the beta stage and entries are being added each week.

To supply the current content, Gibson and his staff have recruited more than 300 writers, plus expert editors for each category and topic. Entries, which can range from 500 to 3,000 words, are subject to rigorous peer review.

A team of technical experts designed the Web structure for ease of searching and developed special user tools for analysis and visualization that make the project unique.

Each entry includes cross-referenced links to related material mentioned in the text as well as all the categories under which it is listed. A timeline feature allows ready visualization of events as they occur over time. With another feature, a user can click on the "Explore Virginia" button and plot events on a map. In the case of Massive Resistance, a policy adopted by Virginia state government to block the desegregation of public schools, this feature shows which schools were closed and when.

A "My Virginia" button allows users to create a personal account and bookmark entries, images, video, maps and other material for future access. This year, Gibson and his team will work with teachers around the state to explore and enhance this tool for classroom use. The goal is to make this feature interactive by allowing for uploading of lesson plans, quizzes and other materials to personal folders that teachers can then share with their students.

"These free and open tools make the encyclopedic experience much more rich and educational and, I think, exploratory," Gibson said.

He has formed collaborations with numerous cultural institutions, archives, museums and libraries that work with EV to share media assets – images, and audio and video collections – with a wider audience. To date, partners include the Library of Virginia; the Virginia Historical Society; the Richmond Times-Dispatch; Documenting the American South, a primary source archive of Southern history at the University of North Carolina; and the University of Virginia Special Collections Library.

"A project like Encyclopedia Virginia is great because it exposes these archives and places them in the historical context," Gibson said. "We are building collaborations that help to bring these archives to life."

Other primary collaborators are members of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities family. Audio files from the radio program "With Good Reason,"[link to:] produced for the Virginia Higher Education Consortium, often dovetail with entries, and material covered by "BackStory,"[link to:] a history show that airs on NPR stations, adds dimension to the encyclopedia, Gibson said. A number of other media resources and contributions come from individuals and organizations that VFH has supported in the past through grants and fellowships.

The beauty of the online resource is that it can easily be updated with new information. Each entry includes a time-line and links to media resources that help bring the story of Virginia alive.

Users can browse by category or entry or search for a specific topic by entry, media or time period.

EV also embraces the interdisciplinary nature of its entries. For instance, the entry for the "Wreck of the Old 97 – which relates the story of the 1903 crash of a Southern Railways freight train in Danville – connects topics under transportation with music, folk life, and law. The train wreck captured wide attention in newspapers as a terrible disaster but then spawned a folk ballad that became the focus of the first major copyright lawsuit. To top it all off, a link to Vernon Dalhart's 1925 recording of the ballad that led to this lawsuit adds depth and richness to the resource, according to Gibson.

"You begin to see links between different aspects of Virginia history that you never would have imagined," he said.

The project began in 2001 with funding provided to a number of states from the National Endowment for the Humanities to explore the creation of state and regional digital encyclopedias. In 2005, the Commonwealth of Virginia supplied initial support to develop the project. A recent $280,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities' Preservation and Access program will allow the addition of sections on pre-colonial and colonial history.

Although in the early planning stages, the section on pre-colonial history will include an entry on the Cactus Hill Settlement on the Nottoway River in southeastern Virginia. The settlement dates to 18,000 years ago.

"Virginia has a deep history as we know, but an even deeper pre-colonial history that I don't think many of us are aware of," Gibson said.

Within the next four to five years, he expects Encyclopedia Virginia will represent a "critical mass of material that is a broad swath and deep investigation of the history and culture of Virginia."

— By Jane Ford