The photo was baffling – tiny hammocks suspended from the roof of an open pavilion. Senior history major Danielle Eyre put long hours into researching what role those “baby hammocks” played in Milwaukee’s history.
As she traced the story behind the photo, Eyre, who is entering the MA program in history at George Mason University this fall, developed research and writing skills she says will serve her well in graduate school and the job market.
That photo is just one small piece of the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, an ambitious 10-year effort to put together a comprehensive, carefully authenticated resource with information on everything Milwaukee.
Lead editors for the project are Amanda Seligman, associate professor of history, and Margo Anderson, distinguished professor of history. Working in collaboration with senior editors Thomas Jablonsky and James Marten from Marquette, IT professionals and a team of students, they’re creating a printed and online version of the Encyclopedia.
“Our gift to the city”
“We really had the motivation to do this because it’s such an important public project,” says Seligman, who worked on a similar project in Chicago. “It is our gift to the city.”
The print version will include 740 entries spread across 1,000 pages and more than a million words.
The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee started in 2008, and Seligman estimates it will be finished in 2017. Total cost is estimated at $2 million, of which $1.3 million has already been raised through contributions and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.
A preliminary website is online at emke.uwm.edu, and a comprehensive print bibliography is scheduled to come out in this spring from Marquette University Press. The project’s Facebook page already has close to 500 “likes.”
The Encyclopedia differs from conventional histories, which tell the story of the city in a linear narrative from start to finish, says Seligman. With the Encyclopedia, researchers, journalists, students and anyone interested will be able to dip into the content at any point to learn more about a topic they’re interested in – whether it’s labor relations, Gertie the Duck or Hank Aaron.
Stories and “Understories”
The online version will include thousands of entries and photos, with all information based on original sources, footnoted and carefully fact-checked, says Seligman. In addition, the “understories” of some of the work – like Eyre’s detective work in tracking down the story behind the baby hammocks photo – will also be accessible.
Through persistent research and conversation with her faculty mentor, Eyre eventually found out that the pavilion was part of an early public health program for babies – allowing groups of infants to enjoy fresh air, swinging gently in the lake breezes.
The Encyclopedia will also include essays on various aspects of Milwaukee history and culture. Well-known local historian John Gurda, for example, is on the Editorial Board. “John’s wonderful and knows more about Milwaukee history than anyone,” says Seligman.
Milwaukeeans get excited – and involved
Other cities like New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Indianapolis have created their own encyclopedias, but Milwaukeeans seem to be particularly interested in their city and its history, says Seligman.
“People are willing to share their information. They’re knowledgeable and excited and want to help. They really understand the need for this project.”
For example, many of the photos Eyre sorted through and identified are contributions from local residents and families. She’s also worked closely with photographer Alan Magayne-Roshak, who chronicled life at UWM for 39 years and also documented numerous historical buildings in the city.
“This is a really great opportunity to get immersed in history and learn research techniques,” says Eyre, a nontraditional student.
The work of students like Eyre is really critical to the project, says Seligman. Many of the students involved in the project are history majors, but others from the School of Information Studies (SOIS), Urban Studies and other areas are contributing to the project.
In turn, the students are learning from the work, she adds. “Digital history skills are really critical today.”
Ann Graf, a former graduate student in SOIS, for example, compiled the 2,000 entries for the bibliography.
“It would be impossible to do this without the students on the front lines,” says Seligman.