From the News column of the January 2006 Perspectives

HistoryLink, Pioneering Online Encyclopedia, Celebrates Seventh Birthday in January

William J. Rorabaugh, January 2006

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1999, a small group of historians and writers in Seattle launched a web site called HistoryLink.org with the ambitious goal of offering a comprehensive online encyclopedia of metropolitan history. New web sites were a dime a dozen then amid the rising frenzy of the dot.com boom, especially in Seattle, but HistoryLink could claim some distinctions.

Foremost, this was the first effort to create an online encyclopedia of community history from scratch with entirely original content, not text adapted from previously published works such as the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and Handbook of Texas, both of which launched online databases in 1997. Second, HistoryLink was produced by an independent nonprofit historical organization, not by a university, humanities council, or public agency. Third, it had no shortage of ambition; while HistoryLink offered just a few hundred original, sourced essays in a searchable database on its debut, it planned to prepare and post thousands more.

"We applied a journalistic model of coverage, but with footnotes," explains Walt Crowley, HistoryLink co-founder and executive director and a former reporter and commentator who turned to writing local history in the late 1980s. "And we called our business plan ‘venture socialism.' A lot of our dot.com cousins scoffed at our not seeking advertising and private capitalization, but HistoryLink is still online and growing, and they're history, literally."

The site germinated with the idea of publishing a new historical encyclopedia of King County before the November 2001 sesquicentennial of the arrival of the area's first white settlers. As the scope of the project grew, an online database appeared to offer a more feasible and affordable format. Cofounders Marie McCaffrey, Paul Dorpat, and Crowley chartered History Ink as a nonprofit corporation in November 1997, and launched a prototype of HistoryLink.org in May 1998 with seed money from the late philanthropist Patsy Bullitt Collins. The City of Seattle, King County, and corporate sponsors underwrote database design and content development for the fully functional site that debuted the following January.

HistoryLink now provides free access to more than 4,000 essays and special Web features such as interactive "Cybertours" of historic districts and ecological systems. The searchable database is organized into three primary online "libraries": longer "Cyberpedia" essays, including biographies, community histories, and thematic essays; shorter, date-specific "timelines"; and anecdotal "People's Histories" such as memoirs, oral history transcripts, and original interviews.

HistoryLink content is researched, written, edited, and illustrated by a core of full- and part-time staff of 10. Content is also provided by a growing roster of contributing historians and free-lance writers, both paid and volunteer, and by partner historical societies and museums from around the state.

All files are abstracted to expedite user evaluation of search results. With the exception of "People's Histories," each HistoryLink essay provides detailed endnotes, and HistoryLink staff—and visitors—fact-check posted content. When a file is corrected or supplemented with new information, the changes are noted in the essay's source field to alert visitors and scholars.

The site's front page is updated every Thursday with extensive blurbs and links highlighting content related to "This Week in State and Local History" such as anniversaries and historical roots of current events. More than 1,200 regular visitors also subscribe to an e-mail newsletter featuring "Early Warning" of upcoming historical anniversaries.

The site's development has cost nearly $2.5 million to date, and its $400,000 annual budget is sustained by grants, gifts, sponsorships, publishing contracts, and fee-for-service projects from foundations, individuals, corporations, local governments, public agencies, and a direct biennial appropriation from the state legislature. HistoryLink has also prepared or published 10 books since 1999 with three more projected for 2006 in partnership with the University of Washington Press.

The public response to HistoryLink has been very positive. Daily traffic has grown from a few hundred file requests to more than 100,000 from more than 5,000 "unique" visitors. In its seven years online, HistoryLink has registered nearly 85 million hits from 4.5 million visitors, making it one of the nation's busiest local history web sites.

Regular site visitors include journalists, tourists, scholars, professional researchers, genealogists, and "history buffs," but K–12 teachers and students have been HistoryLink's largest and fastest growing audience from the outset. "When school vacation begins," says Crowley, "our hits drop like a stone by a third to a half," before rebounding each fall. Data provided by some 1,200 subscribers indicate that three-fourths of HistoryLink visitors reside in Washington State.

In 2002, at the behest of numerous K–12 teachers, the State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Washington State Council for Social Studies, HistoryLink began development of a parallel database devoted to Washington State history. This was launched on March 2, 2003—the sesquicentennial of the creation of Washington Territory—and state content was merged and integrated with the Seattle-King County database in October 2004.

So, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2006, HistoryLink can claim a fourth distinction as the nation's first operational online encyclopedia of state history created expressly for the Internet.

–William J. Rorabaugh, is the author of Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties, among other books, and is professor of history at the University of Washington, whose regional history journal, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, he edits.