The New Georgia Encyclopedia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council in partnership with the Office of the Governor, the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education.
Reviewed Feb. 10–May 30, 2006.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia is a World Wide Web–based reference work. There is no printed version, and it is probably a harbinger of many such works that will migrate from the printed page to the Web page in the future. The Encyclopedia can be understood, in part, as an attempt to marry the traditional strengths of a basic reference work to the multiple potential advantages of the Internet. While not (yet) a perfect product, it succeeds admirably in that goal.
A reference work such as this, Web-based or not, should first be authoritative, accurate, and reasonably comprehensive. I started with a list of about twenty items to look up, ranging from big topics (slavery) to small ones (the Atlanta Crackers baseball team), from people (Margaret Mitchell) to places (Albany), from early in the state’s history (the Salzburgers) to recent events (the 1996 Olympic Games). The site offers three ways to search: through a set of broad categories (for example, “Religion,” "Folklife“) listed at the left margin, which are then broken down into successively smaller categories; through an alphabetical listing of articles, accessed through the ”Index“; and through a simple search engine. The categorical arrangement works very well for browsing. For example, clicking successively on ”History and Archeology,“ "Antebellum Era,” and “People” produces a long list of entries on major and minor figures from that period. For a particular topic, entering a term in the search engine box produces a list of suggestions of articles and matching terms that appear somewhere in the text of articles. Thus, the term “Margaret Mitchell (1900–1949)” appears on the list as one begins to type her first or last name. If the user clicks on one of the suggested keywords, a list of articles with the word appears; in each article, the keyword is highlighted in yellow.
Most of the items on my sample list were easy to find, either in separate entries or as part of other entries, and the articles were accurate and appropriately informative. In one case (“Atlanta Crackers”) the article is promised for the future, but it is not yet available. There were, however, numerous related articles, including one, I was delighted to see, on Bob Montag, a good-hit, no-field slugger I watched in the 1950s. In two cases, “spirituals” and “Cherokee Indians,” I was surprised that neither had its own entry, although for the former there were entries for the “Sea Island Singers” and several individual performers, and for the latter there were entries for “Cherokee Removal” and individual Cherokee leaders. Granted, neither spirituals nor Cherokees are tied uniquely to Georgia, but neither are blues or gospel music, both of which have fine essays, or the Creek Indians, the subject of a separate overview by Claudio Saunt.
As scholars, we have begun to benefit from Web-based sources; as teachers, we have become familiar with student “research” that consists of browsing Web sites full of information of dubious provenance. It is therefore reassuring that, as the example of Saunt suggests, the editors have engaged an impressive lineup of contributors: Catherine Clinton writes on Fanny Kemble; Michele Gillespie on antebellum artisans; Barton C. Shaw on the Populist party; and Peter A. Coclanis on rice. It would be hard to think of a more authoritative guide on each of those topics. Essays on important historical subjects often include brief but comprehensible discussions of historiography; on the Albany Movement, for example, Lee W. Formwalt points out that recent researchers emphasize the deep local roots of the movement, rather than seeing it as a “failure” along the way in a larger, national project. In general, users can have confidence in the quality of the information.
Web publishing offers advantages impossible to duplicate in traditional paper format, and the encyclopedia often makes excellent use of them. In the essay on Margaret Mitchell, for example, there are links to related essays on Gone with the Wind as a novel (1936) and as a film (1939), and in the right margin there are links to the entry “Women during the Civil War” and to the site for the Margaret Mitchell House museum. The Fanny Kemble essay includes a link to a PBS site for a documentary on Kemble, and the article on Robert Toombs has a link to a University of Georgia Web site with both images and transcriptions of twenty-three Toombs manuscript letters. The encyclopedia also incorporates visual and auditory material. In the entry “The Sacred Harp,” for example, the reader can link directly to video clips from a demonstration of shape-note singing. The essay on the Albany Movement includes a link to a video clip of Martin Luther King Jr. apologizing for an outbreak of violence during one of the marches.
In short, the encyclopedia does its work very well. It could, however, be improved with two additional features. First, there should be more maps: they are virtually absent except for simple maps showing the location of each county. Even the category “Land and Resources” lacks maps showing major geographical features. In articles on Civil War battles and campaigns, the lack of maps is a serious handicap for readers unfamiliar with the topic. Maps showing other information would also be welcome: voting and population data by county; the location of major crops; or the growth of the railroad network. Second, the encyclopedia is skimpy on quantitative data. There are a few basic statistics, such as the population of the state in each decade, but many others would be useful, especially time series of such political, social, and economic data as votes for president and statewide offices, population by race and ethnicity, and production and employment for major agricultural and industrial sectors.
It is to be hoped that the sponsors of the project will take advantage of the fact that the site, unlike a printed work, can be readily updated and improved. But even without these suggested additions, The New Georgia Encyclopedia is an excellent resource that can serve as a model for similar projects.
J. William Harris
University of New Hampshire
Durham, New Hampshire