Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Purpose and Audience

The following breakout group discussions took place during the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join the discussion by adding your comments below.

Group 1 (facilitated by Randall Miller, St. Joseph’s University)
The session began with requests for clarification on the feedback form, specifically the statement “what ideas do you feel should not be included in the Encyclopedia.” Some expressed uncertainty about the question and the general premise that some ideas or themes, such as homicide, were off-limits. It was suggested that, rather than some ideas being off-limits, there might be “toxic” interpretations and participants debated the extent to which the Encyclopedia will be open to all interpretations, including those of amateur historians. Here, the discussion turned to questions about the vetting process, how the editors will ensure viable and credible interpretations, and what role institutions will play in this regard. Special concern was paid to being inclusive towards diverse experiences and perspectives, with some question as to how the editors will deal with varying views and memories of particular events.

From here, key questions included who is the Encyclopedia for, what public or institutions are its audience, and how does the audience extend beyond the scope of the city. It was argued that the audience must include historians and institutions outside of Philadelphia, with The Encyclopedia of New York City cited as an example. To the question of who is the audience, one participant asked whether children were included and argued that the Encyclopedia needs to be comprehensible and valuable to both historians and students. The issue of users led to some discussion of the implications for preparing the Encyclopedia in both print and web form. It was suggested that the Encyclopedia consist of at least two platforms of varying degrees of sophistication, while still maintaining scholarly integrity and trustworthiness. In terms of the web format, participants favored a “living Encyclopedia” with a design accessible to multiple users, though cautioned that such designs require management, monitoring, and extensive funding. Still, it was emphasized that the Encyclopedia will not be beholden to old models and that the project will be approached as expansively as possible and as a learning process.

Some expressed doubts about comparisons between the current project and the Encyclopedias of Chicago and New York and suggested that The Encyclopedia of Cleveland is a more apt comparison given the difficult issues of that city’s history. It was asked whether dealing with Philadelphia’s decline and its various problems as a city would hamper the Encyclopedia’s reception and success, both financial and scholarly. Some argued that The Encyclopedia of Chicago provided a good model for addressing hard issues and that the focus must be on rigorous rather than celebratory scholarship. At the same time, participants spoke of the need to build up the city’s self-confidence with the project, a task that some believed can be achieved by telling the truth and confronting the city’s past. Overall, participants described the Encyclopedia’s goal as honest truth in compelling packages and history with meanings that must extend beyond the scholarly community.

By and large, the duration of the discussion focused on the web format for the Encyclopedia. It was agreed that the web component must be a “different kind of beast” and that the website cannot simply reproduce print entries online. With a number of historic sites represented at the meeting, many participants expressed concerns that web content could become a substitute for visiting the sites themselves and discussed how cyber-reality might connect to concrete reality. It was suggested that the Encyclopedia’s web component weave direction with interpretation by providing the location and hours of historic sites. The hope was expressed that historic sites will also benefit from the web content in seeing online exhibitions and research by others that may inspire their own work. A similar point was made regarding libraries for whom the Encyclopedia would be a resource on topics less familiar to their collections, as well as an impetus for people to visit libraries to explore topics in greater detail. To the issue of user-generated content, participants asked whether the web component will be a community or simply a product and encouraged the editors to consider how much information will be sealed and proprietary. Here, the issue of unsolicited content was raised, along with the observation that a lot of the city’s history is oral and unwritten. To this point, it was suggested that the web component could be a forum for oral history interviews, personal accounts, and other materials that have not been published. To the question of web design, participants also debated the efficacy of linking to other existing materials. The issue of the Philadelphia portal on Wikipedia was raised and some encouraged the editors to tap into that power in some fashion and also be conscious of its primacy on Google. Participants likewise suggested linking to existing online exhibits without having to recreate material, though some were wary of creating a collection of endless links that pulled users farther and farther away from the main site. Rather, it was suggested that the Encyclopedia’s web component collect existing information and repurpose it into a site that is truly a central hub for these disparate materials.

The discussion of web design once again raised the issue of students, with participants arguing that a web component must be accessible to teachers and applicable to the classroom. Here, the point that the Encyclopedia must have both intellectual and practical applications was once again raised and it was emphasized that the Encyclopedia project should include different layers that engage scholars, amateurs, and students. To the question of students, participants favored a web component that does not simply present materials, but rather actively involved students in its creation. Students likewise factored into the discussion of biographies and how they will or will not be included in the Encyclopedia. One participant shared that the editors of the Encyclopedia of Chicago chose to not include biographical entries except as particular people were mentioned in the Encyclopedia’s thematic essays. Some participants questioned this approach, emphasizing that students often have to do research on historical figures and that the engaging personalities of history are often vehicles for connecting people to the subject. It was suggested that biographies perhaps comprise a separate volume of the Encyclopedia and that, in some form, the Encyclopedia should include them given the needs of students in particular. Finally, on the issue of biographies, some cautioned against the Encyclopedia embracing a top-down approach and expressed the hope that potential NEH funding will allow greater freedom of interpretation and the bottom-up view favored for the project.

Group 2 (facilitated by Charlene Mires, Villanova University)

The breakout group began with establishing two goals: to determine the purposes and the audiences of the proposed Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Beginning with that premise, one member offered that a purpose of the project would be to provide a platform, forum, and/or framework for civic dialogue in showing what makes the city of Philadelphia special. Another participant expanded on this to suggest that the project would need to represent the scholarship about Philadelphia as well as reflect the voices of the community.

From this beginning, the group began to pose a series of questions that the encyclopedia would ideally answer. Reiterating the earlier question, one person asked: What is the special quality of the city? Another member expanded this to assert that the project must analyze the significance of the city, both nationally (that Philadelphia is a nationally significant resource) as well as chronologically (fighting the notion that the importance of the city ends after roughly 1800). Another question was posed regarding the themes of the encyclopedia: What narratives are generated for the project? A colleague responded to this by posing a further question: How should one develop a narrative of Philadelphia? To this, a member offered that the encyclopedia’s narrative should represent the impacts and significance of the entire city instead of a chronology of events.

At this point, the question was posed about the form that the encyclopedia should take, since form is often shaped by and related to its purpose. It was generally agreed that the form of the project should be in the shape of a set of events, thereby allowing for community involvement in its creation. However, a deeper debate emerged over how the encyclopedia would manifest itself: a print format or an internet format. It was determined that both sides represented positive as well as negative attributes. It was argued that while a web-based version would serve present purposes, the permanence of a print version would serve future purposes. Several members argued that a book format captures a moment in time of how we look at Philadelphia history now and that future historians could use our recordings in their future research.
Meanwhile, proponents of a web-based format argued that the main strengths of the internet would be the ability to update and provide user interaction with the project, something that is virtually impossible with a print version. However, it was agreed that a web-based encyclopedia is problematic: the essential nature of its malleability could lead to an overloading of data. Additionally, a website would need to be maintained and updated, but by whom? (Mentioned possibilities included the editors, the scholarly community, and the general public.)

The concept of public access to altering the encyclopedia’s contents spurred a debate about the validity of the project becoming a localized version of Wikipedia. One person argued that there are some merits to this approach, including the timeliness of posts and the assurance of locally relevant material. However, many participants pointed out the flaws of unsupervised access, such as the validity and trustworthiness of the information being offered. To these objections, one member asked what it would take for the group to feel safe about a web-based format? General assent was that, regardless of the level of public access, there would have to be some oversight but that public access in developing content was a good idea. There were several reasons offered for giving the public access to make changes, fix errors, and develop content: one person suggested that it provides transparency of reliability, while another suggested that public access offered a level of possibility that would break the generational gap. Finally, someone mentioned that public access would help keep the project as current as possible, since the public would be mostly concerned with more current events, and that a web-based format is generally more successful in keeping up with changes to recent events.

Returning to the issue of a narrative, the group next turned to the question of how to interpret the information contained within the encyclopedia. Two methods of interpretation were raised: a presentist approach that attempts to historicize only the most current burning questions, versus the more traditional approach of focusing and historicizing older events. One attendee suggested that importance should be placed on the voices and identities found within Philadelphia. The member argued that since interpretations are always relational the project should be explicitly comparative in narrative. As an example the issue of ethnicity was raised: the participant suggested that topics in the encyclopedia should show relational identities whenever possible. Therefore, on the subject of ethnicity in Philadelphia there should be two interpretations, one which views them holistically or comparatively and smaller articles focused on individual ethnicities. This led another person to suggest that the project must involve different layers and types of context.
The discussion of narrative and interpretations spurred one attendee to suggest that the project should re-imagine the encyclopedia away from its typical format. It was then suggested that perhaps this should mean a set of thematics in the form of extended essays with sidebars for terms. This idea was further refined by suggesting that the thematic contain the history while the terms contain the information. This way, it was explained, every issue gets founded in its history and Philadelphia becomes an exemplar of these issues in America. Another person added that these themes be divided into subjects instead of the typical chronology in an attempt to separate the encyclopedia from the authority and format of the book Philadelphia: A 300-Year History.

One member commented that the aforementioned thematic approach may be more suitable to a web-based format, due to the ease of inserting hypertext links wherever they are needed. This caused another participant to remind everyone that the purpose of an encyclopedia is a gathering place or method of accumulating knowledge and that other formats (the internet, film, radio, etc.) were simply ways of distributing knowledge. It was then suggested that one way to accomplish all of this would be in having a series of magazine-style “issues” that would tackle the more current events while the standard text could adequately handle the more traditional history. Someone then remarked that perhaps multiple delivery mechanisms would be appropriate for the project.

With time running short, the facilitator asked the group to focus on the issue of who would be the audience for the project and how would this audience benefit from the encyclopedia? A list was quickly established that included: students and young people, twenty-first century readers, heritage tourism, journalists, the everyday history buff, teachers/librarians (one participant termed them “information wholesalers”), former Philadelphians and non-Philadelphians, scholars of all fields (it was suggested that themes could be geared to have various scholars contribute and not just historians), artists, politicians and policy makers, and foundations.

Finally, the facilitator asked if there were ways that the project provided intersections or collaborations with the attendees’ own fields of work. An archaeologist in attendance offered that the project would serve as a method of disseminating findings that are usually never widely seen, which could benefit not only archaeologists, but also scholars in all fields. Another member said that it would benefit his work if the content addressed fables, myths, stories, and tales of Philadelphia that are untrue.
In the closing minutes of the breakout session the timeframe of the project was questioned. Would it be appropriate to focus the themes on fifty-year intervals, for example, or was it better to structure the articles by decade? A final point was raised that for the encyclopedia to be successful it should take a decentralized approach: instead of being primarily written by scholars it must reach out and involve the various institutions, groups, and communities of Philadelphia.

Group 3 (facilitated by Howard Gillette, Rutgers University-Camden)

The primary topic of discussion during the hour focused on the format the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia would take. There appear to be three choices available: a web-based version with no printed volume; only a printed edition with no web presence; or a hybrid of the two. The majority of fourteen people in this session seemed to favor a web edition as necessary. However, there were several people who stated that a printed edition was necessary.
A print edition has the several advantages. It marshals intellectual pursuits in different directions and exposes readers to topics that they would not have thought to pursue on the web. A web version will allow for much greater “distribution” of the encyclopedia than a printed edition and thus many more readers would benefit from it. It is obviously much easier to regularly update the content of a web edition than to reissue a new print edition to incorporate new material. However, many participants were quick to point out that the editors of a web edition need to recognize that it is a tremendous time commitment to undertake these updates.

Another significant factor is the fact that a “digital divide” exists in our society. People who are poor, older, less educated, lack internet service in their home, or lack basic typing/computer skills are much less likely to use the internet version of the encyclopedia as opposed to the printed edition which might be on the shelf of their local library. A printed version might have much more initial credibility than a web version that competes for the reader’s attention with bloggers and others who lack expertise but are quick to put their opinions on the internet. The credentials of the editors and writers of the encyclopedia will have to be clearly spelled out in any internet version in order to gain acceptance from scholars. However, a distinct advantage of the web version of the encyclopedia is that it would allow video, still, and audio clips to be incorporated in the entries. This would assure a much deeper, multi-dimensional narrative for the reader to enjoy and potentially could allow the reader to provide feedback and opinions on the content. Gillette explained to those present that it is anticipated that the National Endowment for the Humanities grant application will be submitted in July and a decision on the print vs. web format will have to be made by that time.

One of the participants stated that the encyclopedia would be invaluable to city officials as it would allow them to learn more about the history of various neighborhoods and the context of prior decisions impacting the community when trying to resolve citizen’s concerns or formulate policies. Additionally, it would quickly become a resource for librarians, archivists, and historians, who could direct local citizens seeking information about their city to the encyclopedia.

There was a shared belief that it is vitally important that the editors form a partnership and maximize input from local organizations and leaders in order to create an encyclopedia that is responsive to the needs of the community. Because librarians, archivists, and historians are asked questions on a daily basis by citizens, they are in a very good position to know what types of information would be most in demand.

The encyclopedia must be responsive to the needs of the K-12 school population. This will help to assure the widest usage of the publication. Future historians will come from this pool of talented youngsters, and their thirst for knowledge must be properly addressed. If we are looking to tap the next generation as part of our marketing for the encyclopedia we must also keep in mind that this generation is very internet savvy as compared to the older generation, which might prefer a printed volume. One participant questioned the potential market for encyclopedias for graduating high school seniors, which has been a primary market for The Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Finally, the city’s archives are a valuable source for information for data and material to include in the encyclopedia. The editors and writers should carefully examine this rich trove of material

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