A Sense of Renewal

When we started this “Editor’s Notes” column I told Ryan Chamberlain (who oversees the ECH social media) that I thought I might create a column weekly – well, maybe monthly.    I should have said “as the spirit moves me.”   And right now, as we come to the close of a year unlike any other that I have experienced, I do feel the impulse to write.  Yes, Ryan’s been waiting for another set of notes for some time.

And that impulse rests, in part, on the events of the past year:  the pandemic, the election, and the growing movement to, at last, fully confront racial inequity.  But, in the main, it was spurred by my students at CWRU, who reminded me that there is always a new future for the past. 

I suspect the highlight of almost every year for me focuses on those I teach - or should I say, those who consistently add to my own education.  That said, this year has been special for me and for the ECH given that one of my classes, an internship in digital humanities, focused entirely on the history of encyclopedias and had, as its core requirement, the production of new articles for the Encyclopedia by each of the students.  

Image of Senior Editor Dr. John Grabowski, of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
Senior Editor John J. Grabowski
Senior Editor John J. Grabowski, Krieger-Mueller - Associate Professor of Applied History

With five students, that meant fifty new entries for the ECH.   Yes, that was important, and if you watch our “New and Updated Articles” column you will have, and will continue to see the record of that work.  That’s great – with the students and a corps of volunteer writers and topical editors, this year has produced a substantial amount of new or updated content for the Encyclopedia.   But what really mattered were the insights that the class brought to the project.  Those insights represented a bridge in how history is presented and viewed.  Indeed, they provided a visceral connection between the ideas and ideals that drew me to the project some forty years ago and those that each of the students brought to the class in terms of their choice of articles to write and their keen sense of how and who’s history could best be presented in a digital format.

Each week over the fall semester Ryan and Meghan Schill, both doctoral students at CWRU and Besse Fellow Associate Editors of the ECH, joined me for the on-line class – one that stressed the interplay of ideas and questions about the manner in which encyclopedias have evolved over the centuries, and particularly, the role they have played and continue to play in “shaping” knowledge.  We discussed and debated issues relating to what might be considered necessary or worthwhile in terms of content from the time of ancient Greeks to Wikipedia.   Our conversations relating to editorial authority were challenging and refreshing -- particularly when we began to consider how the digital revolution had reshaped knowledge.  Who needs an encyclopedia when you have Google?  Or if not Google, can  Wikipedia best represent what “everyone” needs to know?   Of course, there’s always Britannica.  And, of course, that opens the question of the ECH.   Is it still needed?   

The consensus here was yes – but there were many ideas as to how it could be improved.  The final assignment for the semester was to look at other on-line encyclopedias and then to critique, in a long-form essay, the ECH and suggest how it might be improved.  Those papers brought forth many good ideas (which I will share in a forthcoming column).  They discussed the “look” of the ECH, provided detailed analyses of how individual articles might be improved, emphasized the need for more visual materials, maps, and additional links to other sources.  But each of the papers argued for the value of the ECH and what types of content would make it more relevant to the community.   Overall, the papers provided an affirmation of the worth of the project  (yes, I know what you’re thinking – the editor and his staff taught the class so this would be a pre-ordained judgement on the part of the students).   That could be, but I tend to doubt it and the reason for that, rests in the topics the students created for the Encyclopedia.

Overwhelmingly, the articles the students chose to write meshed with the imperatives of today.  They ranged from Rock’ n’ Roll, to women educators, to the LGBTQ community, and to social change.  They also included biographical sketches of actors, artists and architects from Cleveland who had recently passed.  Some of these entries had been suggested by our Associate Topical Editors, others came directly from the students.  So now we have entries on the founders of Laurel School, the Poni-Tails, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the Living Room, and Act Up Cleveland.   

It’s all good and it certainly reminds me of the time when David Van Tassel began this project in the early 1980s – it was refreshing and exciting to create entries on topics that epitomized the changes in historical studies that began in the 1960s.  It was the heady era of the “new social history.”  It was more than making a book – in a sense it felt revolutionary.   But then, old revolutions need to stay vital, they need continuity, and more than anything else, they need new ideas.

That’s why this semester has been so good, and so refreshing.  Despite Covid and all the trials of this past year, five students at CWRU have shined a bright light on the promise of the future by opening up new windows on the past, windows that are open to the changes that continue to shape our society and our city.   That’s an important continuity for an old project – one that I trust will never grow old.  For me, it was an experience that was invigorating and hopeful.