The Secret Life of an Encyclopedia Entry

History  •  News

By Nora Pehrson – Virginia Humanities Communications Intern

Since publishing its first content in 2008, our Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) has created a trove of nearly 2,000 entries, spanning topics from Virginia Indians to slavery to twentieth-century history. EV’s staff untangles the rich, complicated threads of Virginia’s statewide and local histories and documents them, making them available to teachers, students, history aficionados, and curious Internet users alike. Thanks to its authoritative scholarship and rigorous fact checking, EV has garnered a reputation for being a reliable, impartial source of historical truth. Trevor Noah even cited an entry on The Daily Show to refute false claims about slavery.

Brendan Wolfe

EV’s chief editor, Brendan Wolferecently announced he’d be taking a new position with the Charlottesville Community Foundation. Before he left, I wanted to sit down with him as well as Donna Lucey, EV’s long-time media editor, to learn about the hidden processes that go into making each entry an exciting tool for understanding Virginia’s stories.

The process begins by taking a holistic, big picture look at history. Wolfe explained that EV’s staff starts by identifying a thematic section topic, like “Civil War” or “Slavery.” Then, they find a scholar to serve as a section editor and begin fleshing out the section with potential entry topics. Currently in the works is a section on the American Revolution. “Ideally we’ve got a rough idea of a section and a rough entry list,” Wolfe said. “And by rough, for this, it’s 18 pages.”

Throughout the process, EV staff works directly with scholars to ensure that it is presenting the most up-to-date and inclusive versions of history possible. Wolfe recalls that when compiling the list of entries for the Civil War section, for instance, the first draft “felt very 1960sish. Lots of battles and leaders.” Section editor Pete Carmichael, current head of the Civil War Center at Gettysburg College, helped EV staff put together an updated entry list that included topics like “the homefront, women’s experience, the experience of enslaved and free blacks, religion” and more.

After a section topic has been identified and a list of entries has been approved, the section editor helps recruit scholars to write the entries. These are historians who possess the most up-to-date understanding of their field. Contributing scholars receive a modest honorarium for their work, but the real gain, as Wolfe sees it, is the chance to participate in public-facing history. It’s an “opportunity to actually contribute to people’s real understanding of history. And it’s not something that’s going away. That entry is going to be on the Internet a long time.”

Wolfe then edits each entry, collaborating back and forth with the author and performing a preliminary round of fact checking. It’s a labor-intensive process, but one that the EV staff see as the necessary “minimum due diligence” required to make EV an authoritative source. When Wolfe is done, the entry is sent out for a vigorous round of professional fact checking and copyediting.

Donna Lucey

At this point, EV’s media editor Donna Lucey steps in. Working “like a detective,” Lucey has traveled to archives and museums all over the state in search of  media objects like letters, scrapbooks, paintings, 3D objects, and even centuries-old food. These materials get added to a stockpile from which EV can draw on for any entry. “Over time I figure out how to sprinkle them in,” Lucey explained. She has formed partnerships with museums and historical societies, who help her photograph and digitize items that, in many cases, have never been previously published. At the former Museum of the Confederacy (now part of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond) “they allowed me to go into their back closet of artifacts” and choose some one-of-a-kind objects never seen before by the general public.

This 3D model of a pipe made of schist—a common local rock—appears in Encyclopedia Virginia‘s entry on Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest.

“I love the files that say miscellaneous,” Lucey said. “Menus, bits of ephemera, family photographs, and scrapbooks” humanize history, making it real and accessible to anybody. “Physical artifacts are almost more telling than the text itself,” she added, referring to a prosthetic arm that belonged to a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. As Wolfe says, EV’s multi-media approach is unique. It’s “not what you’re going to see associated with that material everywhere else on the web.”

Finally, entries are sent back to contributors one last time for review and are prepared for publication online by Miranda Bennett, EV’s assistant editor. But even after publication, an entry is never truly finished. New sources turn up in archives, historical perspectives change, and EV has to constantly adapt to its audiences. So, when asked if EV would ever be complete, Wolfe answered that “it won’t ever be finished.” And Lucey agreed, saying history “never ends. The factory keeps churning it out!”

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