Reverential reference: Encyclopedia of Arkansas hits a milestone with 6000 entries about the ...

Since debuting in 2006 with 700 entries, the website,, has been a trusty tool for anyone seeking information about ...
Reverential reference: Encyclopedia of Arkansas hits a milestone with 6000 entries about the ...

On Feb. 3, the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas turned 6,000.

Since debuting in 2006 with 700 entries, the website,, has been a trusty tool for anyone seeking information about Arkansas history, culture, flora, athletes, fauna, ghosts, geography, food, politics, science, media, droll April Fool's gags ... we could go on, but you get the picture.

Number 6,000, about the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, was written by Arkansas State University history professor Cherisse Jones-Branch.

Among those 6,000 entries are more than 9,000 pieces of media -- photographs, documents, maps, artwork, etc.

Here's another impressive figure: the encyclopedia gets around 1.5 million visits a year, and users have clicked in from all seven continents (yes, even Antarctica), according to data provided by the encyclopedia.

"We're honestly surprised it's still going so fast," says encyclopedia editor Guy Lancaster in his office at The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in downtown Little Rock a few days after the 6,000th post. "We've been averaging 400-500 entries a year, and at some point, we figured we'd run out of things to cover. But it simply doesn't happen."

Seriously. On the day Lancaster announced the 6,000th entry, he noted that there were more than 300 entries assigned to writers, 200-plus entries in the editorial process and 5,525 entries that needed assigning.

Since history never stops happening, recent events aren't ignored at the encyclopedia.

"We are constantly interacting with what's going on here and now," says editorial assistant Jasmine Jobe. "We have an entry on the Flood of 2019, we have an entry on climate change. We're always adding new things."

Earlier this month they assembled an entry on the covid-19 pandemic.

As of March 11, the site had grown to more than 6,030 entries.

Tom Dillard, the historian, Democrat-Gazette columnist and Butler Center founder, got the project off the ground, Lancaster says.

"It is the crown in my professional career," Dillard says. "It is the thing I am most proud of, and I am very interested in safeguarding its future."

Dillard's goal was to create something along the lines of The Handbook of Texas, the encyclopedia first published in 1952 by the Texas State Historical Association.

Early on, the encyclopedia had support from donors like Dolores Bruce and a $1.28 million grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

"We were able to build a footprint quite quickly," Dillard says. "We also brought on [then-senior editor] Nathania Sawyer. She played a key role to get it up and going."

Until last year, CALS worked with Aristotle, Inc., the Little Rock-based digital agency and internet service provider that managed the encyclopedia website.

CALS took over the site as part of an overhaul of its online presence, and a revamped version of the encyclopedia went live on May 15.

Ethan James is the deputy executive director for technology and collections at CALS.

"We redid the entire CALS website and merged all of the websites that we had with a consistent look and feel," he says. "So no matter where you were -- the CALS site, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Roberts Library site -- it all looked familiar and had familiar features."

The encyclopedia, he says, "It's one of our most popular resources of content that we create and give to the community and the world. I want it to succeed and be better and even more used than it has been. We want it to be relevant to everybody in the state."

Who writes these streamlined summaries on subjects ranging from the 1948 film The Arkansas Swing to the history of Magnet Cove and the wackadoo story of Old Mike, the traveling salesman who died in 1919 in Prescott and whose embalmed body was on view for curious and morbid gawkers for over 60 years at the Cornish Funeral Home?

"We have writers who are students, professors, local historians, retirees," says assistant editor Aly Wilkie.

The site includes a list of entries that need to be written. A prospective author will take one, write it up, submit it and then the editing process begins.

Lancaster does initial editing and works with the writer if more information is needed in the piece. It then goes to staff historian Mike Polston, who gives the text another round of editing.

Polston assigns an outside reviewer to go over the item, and if revisions are needed it is sent back to the author.

When it returns, Lancaster edits it again and hands it to Polston for yet another round of editing and fact-checking.

Wilkie copy-edits the text and when she finishes it goes back to the author, who signs off on the entry.

Finally, Jobe uploads it online with media, if applicable, from media editor Michael Keckhaver.

Contributors, who are credited in each entry, are paid a nickel per word, Lancaster says, with a $25 limit.

Entries include a bibliography and can be updated with new information.

Nancy Hendricks and Ty Richardson are two frequent encyclopedia contributors.

Hendricks is the Hot Springs-based author of the 2013 book Senator Hattie Caraway: An Arkansas Legacy, about the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate and 2016's Notable Women of Arkansas: 100 Names to Know, among others.

Her encyclopedia contributions run the gamut from an entry about actor Rodger Bumpass, to one about the time in 1923 when Charles Lindbergh took his very first night flight in the moonlit skies over Lake Village.

"If I had to sum it up, it would be: We tell stories. That's what the Encyclopedia of Arkansas does," Hendricks says. "What I like to do in my books and my work for the encyclopedia is sing the praises of the unsung. It's an honor to be able to tell these Arkansas-centered stories."

Richardson teaches U.S. history and world civilizations at the University of Arkansas Rich Mountain in Mena and Waldron owns Richardson Preservation Consulting. He first came across the encyclopedia when he was a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

• Top 10 Encyclopedia of Arkansas entries viewed in 2019:

Data provided by the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

He grew up in Waldron in Scott County, and his entries focus on Scott County history and communities like Evening Shade, Sensation and Needmore.

"There wasn't a whole lot about Scott County on the website," he says of how he first started contributing to the encyclopedia. "I contacted them and asked if I could write some articles, and I started from there."

Over the past couple of years, he has contributed over 5o entries.

"Everybody's history is important, and there is a lot of neat stuff that not everybody knows about," he says of why he focuses on Scott County. "I think putting it on the website is a great way to get that history out there."

Dillard, naturally, is also a contributor. An entry he is most keen on is from 2008 and is about Isaac Taylor Gillam, a former slave who was a leader in post-Civil War Little Rock and who served on the Little Rock City Council and in the Arkansas General Assembly.

"He had an amazing family, and he himself was amazing," Dillard says. "It was important for me to get him out there as an example of other people in African-American history in Arkansas who were overlooked."

The most popular search from 2019 was for the Elaine Massacre of 1919, which makes sense because last year was the centennial anniversary of the outburst of racial violence in Phillips County.

The encyclopedia entry on the massacre includes photos of soldiers taken in Elaine by a Red Cross worker that historians didn't know existed. The man's granddaughter had them at her home in Mountain Home.

"I got a phone call from someone who knew her," says Keckhaver on the discovery. "She gave us permission to use them and that was really cool."

Other popular searches include the Little Rock Nine, Tony Alamo, the 1980 Titan II Missile Explosion and trees.

"Trees is often in the Top 10," Lancaster says, adding that he thinks it has to do with elementary students using it to identify different tree species and leaves for class assignments.

• Categories of entries at Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

Speaking of students, the website also has a handy dandy list of over 100 lesson plans for teachers that utilize encyclopedia entries.

"One of our goals was for the encyclopedia to be used as a teaching tool," Dillard says.

Indeed, usage drops off in the summer when school is in recess, according to encyclopedia data. In June 2019, 47,898 users visited the site; 48,345 visited in July. Numbers ticked up in August as school started back to over 87,400. The biggest month for users in 2019 was February when 152,467 visited.

Dillard recalls a group of students from New York calling the Butler Center after using the encyclopedia to research the 1957 Central High School desegregation crisis.

Lancaster says the encyclopedia was recently contacted by a junior high school student from New Zealand who used the encyclopedia while studying the American Civil Rights Movement.

"We've also had people whose relatives were in prisoner of war camps in Arkansas contact us," Wilkie says. "We hear from lots of people."

Amid all this history and scholarly pursuits, the encyclopedia staff maintains its sense of humor.

Each year there is a new April Fool's entry that pokes a little fun at Natural State, like the one from 2013 about Sturgis Williford Holmes Jr., "a famous Arkansas folk artist who specialized in the medium of paint-by-numbers."

Or the story of Elija Caesar Swann, the stubborn Confederate soldier roaming the Cache River Bottoms "who achieved national fame for his refusal to surrender to federal authorities for over three decades following the end of the Civil War."

Then there is the 2017 spoof about The Possum, "an 1837 poem by early Arkansas settler Gammon Lausch." Apparently Lausch's only work, it may have been a major influence on Edgar Allen Poe's much more popular The Raven.

"How much safer you would be if that likker you'd restore!"

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