The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History project represents a unique and important connection between Case Western Reserve University, The Western Reserve Historical Society and the northeastern Ohio community. Originating in the university's Department of History, the Encyclopedia represents the contributions of hundreds of academic scholars and talented amateur historians to the interpretation and understanding of the history of Greater Cleveland. Its two printed editions (1987 and 1996) and its on-going World Wide Web edition are acknowledged landmarks in the presentation of urban history. Used as a reference by scholars, students, and interested citizens across the globe, the Encyclopedia has brought notice and credit to the city of Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University, and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
In the late 1970s Mr. HOMER WADSWORTH, the director of the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION, suggested to Professor DAVID D. VAN TASSEL of CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY that he author a new history of the city of Cleveland. Van Tassel quickly came to the conclusion that the complexity of urban history dictated that the book be constructed as an encyclopedia utilizing the skills and knowledge of a number of experts. The Cleveland Foundation approved the concept and provided seed money for the project which began in 1980. John J. Grabowski joined the project as managing editor in 1981.
Seven years later, in the fall of 1987 Case Western Reserve University, working through Indiana University Press, published the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. The 1128-page single-volume work, containing more than 3,000 articles, was the first modern study of an American city published in encyclopedic format. As such, it received very positive reviews and, importantly, served as a model for similar volumes published for other cities, including New York and Indianapolis. Within one year it went through four printings and sold over 14,000 copies.
Van Tassel did not conceive of the Encyclopedia as a static entity, but as a database that could be corrected, expanded, and periodically reissued. Following the publication of the first edition a series of small grants permitted the project to continue and to focus on the publication of a series of four illustrated histories relating to various aspects (including the fine arts, sports, and women) of regional history. The bicentennial of Cleveland in 1996 presented the ideal occasion for the publication of a new edition of the Encyclopedia itself. In that year Case Western Reserve University in conjunction with the Western Reserve Historical Society, published a second, expanded, and updated version of the Encyclopedia and a separate companion volume, The Dictionary of Cleveland Biography. These two volumes were also distributed by Indiana University Press and, like the first edition, received wide acclaim.
The project was expensive and complex. Between 1980 and 1996 senior editor David Van Tassel spearheaded an effort that raised $1.2 million needed to pay writers, staff, and help subvent publications costs. Hundreds of writers contributed to the project. Faculty from the Department of History routinely served on an editorial oversight board while community-based advisory boards assisted the editor and managing editor in selecting appropriate topics for the volumes. The compilation of the two editions of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History placed Case Western Reserve University into close contact with a variety of individuals outside of the university including funders, amateur historians, faculty at other colleges, and numerous individuals interested in various aspects of the region's history.
During the preparation of the second edition a new, powerful, information technology, the World Wide Web, came into common use. That technology, which fostered the transmission of information over the internet and, more importantly, allowed text, photographs, and other information bearing media to be electronically hyperlinked, seemed ideal to the basic purpose of an enterprise such as the Encyclopedia. Web technology could, for example, allow researchers to move rapidly from one article to another related article in an electronic encyclopedia as well as allow the editorial staff to constantly update, expand, and improve the product. Given this potential, the encyclopedia staff began to explore ways of moving the publication to the World Wide Web.
That goal was achieved when CWRU's department of Information Services agreed to undertake the project during 1997. With the provision of over $100,000 of donated staff time, IS staff transferred the text of the second edition of the Encyclopedia and the Dictionary of Cleveland Biography to a server at CWRU. They then designed a highly interactive web site and created special editorial software that would allow for the constant, but controlled modification of the information at the web site.
The Encyclopedia web site was announced to the public in May 1998. This again marked a first for Cleveland and the university: not only was the Cleveland volume the first modern urban encyclopedia, but now it was the first to be available on the World Wide Web. Other cities contemplating web-based histories, such as Chicago, looked to Cleveland as a model for their product. The National Endowment for the Humanities which showed a strong interest in supporting state and regional on-line encyclopedias in the early 2000s also looked to the Cleveland project as a model and consulted its staff for advice. In its first half month of public operation (May), the Cleveland website had 8,000 hits. By September 1999, the site was averaging 50,000 hits per month from around the world. By 2003 the number of monthly hits had exceeded 350,000.
John J. Grabowski, the Krieger-Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History currently serves as editor of the on-line version of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History/Dictionary of Cleveland Biography. The Krieger Mueller chair (a joint position with the Western Reserve Historical Society) was created, in part, to provide a position to oversee the project. Two history graduate students supported by the Ralph M. Besse Fellowship (created to honor one of the major proponents and supporters of the earlier printed editions of the Encyclopedia) assist in maintaining the on-line version. Currently, the editor and his assistants focus on updating existing entries on the website, correcting entries when necessary and, adding new content, including links to other relevant sites, images, maps, and sound files. The Encyclopedia site was redesigned in 2009 by Besse Fellow, John Baden with the assistance of James Nauer, Systems Engineer for Technical Infrastructure Services at CWRU. In May 2015 the Encylopedia transferred from its original CMS and platform to the current Terminal 4 based site.
The main Encyclopedia site is now complemented by a separate site, maintained at the Digital Case site at the university's Kelvin Smith Library. This version serves as an editorial archive for the project, which preserves the content of the full on-line version on an annual basis. It thus provides the ability to track editorial and structural changes to the Encyclopedia over time.