This morning a smart young Virginia Humanities intern interviewed me about my job as editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. We talked about the almost twelve years I’ve been working on the project, about the publishing process we’ve built over that time, and the ways we continue to demonstrate the relevance of this history. I have to tell you, it was a bittersweet conversation because this is my last week on the job. Later this month I’ll begin a new position at the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation.
I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post because how do you sum up such a long and rewarding experience? How do you find words for how proud you are of what we’ve all created—what we’ve really only just begun to create?
When I started at Encyclopedia Virginia in January 2008, we had assigned and received a few entries, but none were fully edited. Matthew Gibson had already created much of the site’s informational infrastructure. He was almost prophetic in this respect, making possible things we hadn’t yet imagined doing. But we were so new we weren’t even online.
Now, as of this morning, we’ve published a few shy of 1,200 entries and a few more than 900 primary documents. This blog has been going for at least a decade and has even managed to make a few waves over the years. And we have completed three seasons of the Not Even Past podcast. A decade ago we never dreamed of doing virtual tours and nowadays they’re almost old hat. Our traffic has gradually risen and I think people are beginning to take notice.
As I told the intern, all of this work has been part of an effort to rethink how people interact with history. Our incomparable media editor Donna Lucey understands that images and artifacts are crucial to understanding content and she insists on finding only the coolest stuff. Check out this piece of Civil War hardtack, for instance, complete with worm. Or this engraved walrus tusk. Or Washington’s dentures, with their awful history right there for everyone to read.
Peter Hedlund, in his work with Google, has made it possible for users to virtually explore the landscape of Virginia, inside and out. And by transcribing and publishing primary documents, Miranda Bennett allows our readers to dig much more deeply into the history than they could with a more conventional encyclopedia. I will never forget one of our former editors, Michelle Taylor (now Dr. Taylor), working on the Danville Riot entry, and especially the congressional testimony that resulted from the violence. Read it yourself. Listen to a white man named George Lea explain to United States senators that he had felt comfortable barking orders to a black police officer because, “Well, we generally speak that way to that class of people down there. We are in the habit of ordering them …”
Michelle began to see the past, and so the present, a little differently that day. And that’s what the study of history can do. It can change your entire understanding of the world.
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Nowadays Miranda also produces the podcast, finding unexpected ways to connect the stories in Encyclopedia Virginia to our day-to-day experiences. She also works with teachers and curriculum experts, conducts oral histories, and remains vigilant over our content—alert to what we’re missing and how we might more effectively present what we have. Our newest colleague, John Rhea, is working on a major new site design, our third.
In the last dozen years, across 1,200 or so entries, we have published amazing content on everything from Virginia Indians to the civil rights movement, from the colonial period to the Civil War and Reconstruction. We were prescient, I think, in undertaking a major section on slavery in Virginia. That was five years ago, and since then scholarship on slavery has become central to the national conversation. Witness our entries on Virginia’s first Africans, indentured servants, Robert E. Lee and slavery, the Lost Cause, and the Lee statue in Charlottesville.
Through this blog, and in essays like this one on the Lee statue and this one on the lynching of John Henry James, I have done my best to think through what this history means. After all, that is what the entire enterprise of history scholarship is about. Not simply collecting agreed-upon facts, but arranging them in some meaningful way.
That we argue about the history only suggests it still matters. And for that I’m grateful.
As I am for all of the help and comradery of my colleagues, past and present—at Virginia Humanities and our partner institutions, especially the Library of Virginia. Thank you to all of the wonderful teachers I’ve met and worked with over the years, and thank you to Caitlin Newman, the best editor I’ve ever known. She’ll be stepping in as interim until a new editor is hired.
I’m proud of what I’ve helped accomplish but I couldn’t have done any of it without you.
I’ll be just across town but my heart will always be here at Encyclopedia Virginia.