HistoryLink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History
Created and maintained by History Ink, Seattle, W.A.
Reviewed April 12 and July 12, 2005.
HistoryLink calls itself the online encyclopedia of Washington State history. Those of us who live in Seattle have learned to use it as a first resort for almost any question regarding the history of our region. And it turns out that there is nothing quite like it for other regions. Historical encyclopedias serving other states are usually online versions of published volumes and are limited in scope and static in form. HistoryLink is wonderfully dynamic. Content is continually added, and the database-driven architecture means that any search term will lead yield a wealth of entries.
The 3,800 entries fall into three categories. Major historical issues and events are detailed in medium-length photo-illustrated articles. Shorter “Timeline” entries capture less significant events or curious incidents as they were covered by period newspapers. “People’s Histories” are extracts from oral histories or biographical pieces that have been submitted by volunteers. In addition, the site features 19 “Cybertours”—photo-essays of various communities—and 28 slide shows that visually introduce significant events.
Labor history is one of my fields so I began with the search term “labor,” which yielded 246 entries, most of them valuable: a biography of the Teamster leader Dave Beck (1,000 words); two accounts of the 1919 Seattle General Strike (1,000 words each); “Hooverville: Shantytown of Seattle’s Great Depression” (350 words); “Boeing Machinists' Strike, 1948” (400 words); “White and Indian Hop Pickers Attack Chinese in Squak on September 7, 1885” (350 words); “Musicians in Seattle Form Union on June 12, 1886” (50 words). Most impressive is the slide show and articles on the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that filled Seattle streets and riveted world attention.
HistoryLink is the creation of Walt Crowley and Paul Dorpat, nonacademic historians who had previously published books and newspaper articles on Seattle history. The articles are well written and seem to be reliably researched. The editors prefer a “just the facts” approach that leaves little room for historical analysis, and the short format means that no subject is covered in much detail. The content seems somewhat old-fashioned: good on events, organizations, and biographies, not the place to learn about historical issues that move across time or are multidimensional. Interested in Japanese Americans in Washington State? There are some fascinating biographies and entries on particular events important to that community but nothing that surveys the history. Nor can you find essays on the state’s demography, political history, urban development, industrial, agricultural, or environmental changes, or racial systems. There is a lot of material on most of these topics, but it is episodic, unassembled.
The site could also use an easier-to-navigate home page, which is dominated by a “This Week in History” feature. This chatty list of events is meant to encourage users to check the site each week, but the feature is of little interest to first-time or occasional users who would be better served by an introductory guide. Otherwise the design is excellent. The site looks like a four-column newspaper, introducing at a glance more than a dozen illustrated entries that can be clicked for full content. Read one entry and you will see links to many more, generated by the high-powered relational database. A reader with even the slightest curiosity is soon traveling deeper and deeper into the site, following an accidental pathway through local history.
James N. Gregory
University of Washington