Encyclopedia of Chicago: indispensable resource or burdensome responsibility?


The digital edition of the Encyclopedia of Chicago is a virtual gateway into the vast history of the city. Through thousands of entries, images, maps, and other historical sources the history of Chicago can be explored. The online encyclopedia is a combination of an archive, a museum exhibit, and a historical narrative. The site is free to use and without advertisements. It is sponsored by the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University.

The digital Encyclopedia of Chicago is fairly unique. A quick Google search revealed other major American cities (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Washington D.C.) do not have online encyclopedias dedicated to their urban history.

Nearly every conceivable topic has been covered by the two types of entries in the encyclopedia. Schools, organizations, people, places, events, businesses, teams, concepts, ideas, movements and much more are covered by the authored entries. These entries are written by professionally trained historians and scholars, none of the encyclopedia is crowd-sourced. Most of these entries attempt to remain purely factual, however some more complex topics require interpretation, such as politics and the police. These lengthier entries usually contain a short bibliography at the bottom of the article.

The other type of entry are the historical sources, such as maps, images, tables and graphs, and documents. The historical sources are used to support the authored entries, but some sources stand independently. Each primary source is referenced to the contributing institution with a accession/call number making the original easy to find.

CcAQVFzWIAEIWitThe encyclopedia is highly accessible. Users can search every entry, you are able to browse alphabetically through the authored entries, historical sources or both, and nearly every article contains links to other relevant articles within the site. This is one of the largest advantages the digital edition has over the print edition.

The site has a “Special Features” section that contains interpretive essays, interactive maps, galleries, indices, and tables, and an informative users guide.

This digital encyclopedia is an invaluable resource for both professional historians and urban history buffs. However, the site does have troubling drawbacks. There are multiple inaccuracies throughout the encyclopedia that are difficult to correct. The site is currently housed on servers at Northwestern and its current technology will not allow the entries to be updated.  Over the next year the site will be transferred from Northwestern’s care to a cloud based platform. It is during this transition that updates can be made. However, combing through all of the entries and choosing which ones need to be updated is a monumental task that will be executed in several phases. I guess that’s why museums have interns.

This move highlights multiple issues that arise when maintaining a free online history site. The site has become a fantastic resource for the public, but it has also become a burden on Northwestern and its partners. For whatever reason the university has decided it no longer wants to maintain the site in its servers (lack of resources, technology, or will power).  The site has not been updated since 2004. This is almost entirely due to the limited nature of the outdated technology, the technology simply will not allow the site to be updated in its current form. The transition to the new cloud based technology should allow for easier updates.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago is a fantastic resource that the public will continue to use due to its high degree of accessibility and the breadth of its content.  This site illustrates a success of the history web and the great amount of resources and effort it requires to maintain such a site.




One thought on “Encyclopedia of Chicago: indispensable resource or burdensome responsibility?

  1. Kyle, you have just revealed the source of my lowkey frustration with this site. Northwestern, really?! The format is in dire need for an update, but it does not take away from the fact that Encyclopedia of Chicago is an excellent resource for the beginning stages of a research project, especially the entries with detailed bibliography entries.


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