Project Reviews

Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago
Created and maintained by the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University

Created under the direction of the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University, the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago website offers exactly what its name implies: an extensive collection of materials, pictures, maps, and written summaries of Chicago's people, places, and events. Editors Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman published the print edition of the Encyclopedia of Chicago in 2004 (University of Chicago Press) and this site represents the online version - though it offers more than a digital copy of their written work.

From the elegant main page, the user can enter via five links: Entries, Historical Sources, Maps, Special Features, and User's Guide. The navigation bar remains at the top of the screen in every link and features a "Breadcrumb Trail" with images of the previous pages visited. This excellent feature represents the site's thoughtfulness and offers insight into the vast amounts of money poured into the site's design, construction, and tools.

The Entries link takes the user to an alphabetical list of links on topics ranging from "Abbott Laboratories" to "Zoroastrians." Each link features an authored article on that particular topic. The article on "Zoroastrians," written by Paul D. Numrich, provides a brief synopsis of the religion and its relation to Chicago (in this case, practiced by 700 Chicagoans at the opening of the twenty-first century). In addition, the articles are written as Wikis, with links to additional in-site topics mentioned in the articles. The "Zoroastrians" article has seven other links to related topics, including "Pakistanis," "Hinsdale," and "Elmhurst." By connecting all of its articles in this manner, the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago website offers the user the ability to learn about the city's development in the manner most comfortable and logical to each individual.

The Historical Sources link features an exceptional list of documents and maps associated with Chicago. This section has a vast display of primary source images, ranging from aerial maps of the city to an 1849 advertisements for cholera remedies to photos of the Union Station ticket counter in 1943. The Maps link includes items from the Historical Sources section, with more than one hundred maps spanning more than two centuries.

The Special Features section offers a true look at digital scholarship. Whereas most of the site remains dedicated to collecting materials and information about Chicago, the Special Features link displays Interpretive Digital Essays, Rich Maps (maps with incidents, such as labor unrest, displayed over space and time), Galleries (with selected images organized to make an argument, such as "How Chicagoans Remember Their History"), Indices, a Timeline, Tables (including homicide rates, tallest buildings, weather extremes, historic landmarks, and several others), and Contact Information, Acknowledgements, and Copyrights. This section gathers a wealth of information and displays it in various forms that make it very accessible to the average user. Unlike the articles, which offer the authors' interpretations of each topic's significance, many of the Special Features items use arranged primary source materials to present information from a more subtle perspective. The table of Chicago's mayors, for example, gives historical "facts" without analysis. This combination of analysis and information makes the Special Features section an excellent example of digital scholarship.

The User's Guide link offers help and tips for using the site, including how to use the Rich Maps, ways to effectively search the Encyclopedia and assistance with technical issues.

Overall, the website offers a great look into what can be accomplished in digital scholarship with a large budget and thousands of man-hours. While not possible for every institution or appropriate for every project, as a resource for students, scholars, and Chicagoans interested in the city's history and development, the Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago does a very good job. Its vast array of collected images, maps, and documents as well as the articles and research tools make this website the source for information about Chicago online.

Nathan Sanderson
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: Spring 2007