encyclopedia of chicago

The History of The Encyclopedia of Chicago

One afternoon nearly fifteen years ago, Professor Ann Durkin Keating of North Central College walked into the office of Dr. James Grossman, vicepresident for research and education at the Newberry Library, to discuss an idea that would transform how we think about Chicago history. Keating and Grossman agreed to undertake a project of truly epic proportions—compiling the most comprehensive synthesis of Chicago history ever produced. They soon enlisted Professor Janice L. Reiff from UCLA, a specialist not only in the history of Chicago but also in the use of computers to write history, as the third project editor. The team planned from the beginning to make this information available in both book and electronic form—a radical and visionary decision given that e-mail and the Internet were, in the early 1990s, in their infancies. The long and careful process that resulted in The Encyclopedia of Chicago would take more than a decade, with the work divided into three major phases—conceptualization, compilation, and publication—that would each take years in themselves to accomplish. The product of this process is as fascinating and unique as the city it was meant to serve.

 The project began slowly as the editors recognized that initial funding would require a clear sense of intellectual and civic purpose. A phase dominated by long meetings and numerous drafts resulted in an NEH grant in 1994 (see the “Funding” link at the end of this document for a list of financial supporters), which enabled the Newberry and the editors to commit the necessary time and resources to the project. During the conceptualization phase, the editors recruited Chicago-area librarians to serve in focus groups. Asked to report on what they would want to include in the first encyclopedia of Chicago, the librarians were given a rare opportunity to influence the contents of the volume, and, with their direction, the editors of the Encyclopedia were able to bring the voice of Chicagoans to the project. With the input of this group of librarians as well as numerous other advisors—including the editors of other city encyclopedias and scholars from dozens of fields who formed “task forces” on broad topical rubrics—the editors had a working architecture for the project by 1998, which included specific recommendations for topics and entries. The completion of a table of contents marked the end of the conceptualization phase.

The Newberry secured a commitment from the Chicago Historical Society to play an active and collaborative role in the project, including signing on as the publisher of the electronic edition, which appeared in 2005. The University of Chicago Press accepted the book for publication and provided input on content, style, marketing, and schedules. In 1998 the editors then turned to the longest and most arduous stage of the process, compilation, which lasted until 2002. During this period, the editors assigned the approximately 1,400 entries and put each entry to a rigorous test. Each entry was read by an editor and either returned to the author for revisions or moved forward to fact-checking. Research assistants then fact-checked every entry for factual and bibliographical accuracy. After authors responded to fact-checking queries, the editors re-read the entries, this time complementing standard editorial work with identifying how each piece would link to other entries. 

With entries coming in at a feverish pace, the work of locating illustrations and creating maps began. Researchers combed the collections of the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library, and numerous other institutions to find appropriate illustrations that not only would illuminate the contents of the Encyclopedia, but that also could serve narrative and interpretive functions comparable to the entries. The maps especially would do much more than illustrate; they had to constitute scholarship in their own right, stimulating as many questions as they answered, spurring further research, and offering new perspectives on the history of metropolitan Chicago. Spearheaded by cartographic editor Michael Conzen, a cartographic group met regularly for more than two years to identify topics for maps, create research agendas, and review drafts by cartographers. The results of this effort are 56 completely original thematic maps that set a new standard for the graphic presentation of urban history.

As the project moved into its final phase, publication, researchers compiled the information for tables and charts as well as created a detailed timeline, based on the entries and running 21 pages, that puts Chicago history in both national and international context. With the direction of the staff at the University of Chicago Press, the physical book now began to take form. The manuscript was reviewed by independent readers for the Press; the design templates were created; and the production department began the long process of finding the best suppliers—printers, paper companies, etc.—for such a complex project. During this stage—with an eye toward publication in the fall of 2004—the editors worked in concert with staff at the Press to review, critique, revise, and amend entries and essays. Simultaneously, work on the electronic Encyclopedia accelerated at the Chicago Historical Society under the editorial leadership of Professor Reiff.

The University of Chicago Press published this landmark historical reference on October 6, 2004. The electronic version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago was published by the Chicago Historical Society in 2005.

The Newberry Library served as project headquarters; the institution provided its collections, assumed responsibility for fundraising and development publicity, and contracted with the University of Chicago Press for the publication of the print version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. James R. Grossman, vicepresident for research and education at the Newberry Library, is project director. Douglas Knox, Newberry staff, is managing editor.

Funding information