The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee (EMKE) is a digital urban history encyclopedia created and housed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It includes nearly 700 originally written entries, over 1,300 images, including fifty maps, and over 1,800 bibliographic entries—as well as lesson plans for teachers. A series of “understories” also discuss the processes and challenges of researching and writing EMKE’s narratives. These resources offer researchers, students, and the general public a first stop for their inquiries into the history of the Greater Milwaukee area, as well as a jumping off point into the broader fields of urban, labor, political, gender, sexuality, and global migration history. EMKE’s commenting functions allow users to reflect on and contribute to ongoing processes of building knowledge about Milwaukee’s past.
The EMKE was developed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) between 2008 and 2020 as an urban history encyclopedia in the tradition of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland, the Encyclopedia of New York City, and the Encyclopedia of Chicago, among others. Its creators, UWM History Department professors Margo Anderson and Amanda Seligman, previously worked on major encyclopedia projects; Anderson co-edited the Encyclopedia of the U.S. Census and Seligman worked on the Encyclopedia of Chicago as a graduate student. In the summer of 2008, they began creating a resource that would collect and distill the knowledge experts had already produced about the history of the Milwaukee metropolitan area, fill in holes in the existing research, and inspire new scholarship.
In preparing to build the EMKE, Anderson and Seligman developed foundational projects that cultivated local partnerships, investigated the existing and ongoing historical scholarship on Milwaukee, and identified available primary and secondary resources necessary for building encyclopedia entries. In 2009, Anderson and UWM Professor Victor Greene published Perspectives on Milwaukee’s Past, an edited volume of essays from experts on various topics of Milwaukee history assessing current scholarship about the city’s past and what issues needed further consideration. In October 2009, Anderson and Seligman also organized a conference on the “History of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Area” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to further lay the groundwork for the project. Attendees were invited to nominate topics they wanted to see considered in a Milwaukee history encyclopedia.
Along the way, Seligman and Anderson met individually with community stakeholders and representatives from area libraries and archives to gauge their enthusiasm for a Milwaukee history encyclopedia and cultivate their support for the project. They also consulted with the creators of similar projects and with colleagues in professional organizations to inquire about some of the achievements and pitfalls EMKE might expect along the way, as well as potential funding sources.
With this groundwork in place, Seligman and Anderson began building the administrative staff needed to undertake this large-scale public history project. In Fall 2008, graduate assistant Karen W. Moore (Ph.D., UWM Urban Studies, 2011) helped them plan how the project would be structured, identify its goals and deliverables, and build a timeline for its completion. Joan Baumgart joined the staff as a program assistant in 2010. Joan proved to be an indispensable member of the project, administering the EMKE budget, grants, and spending, handling personnel and payroll operations, and other key operational responsibilities.
In 2010, with financial support from UWM, they began hiring a staff to implement the project. One of the first graduate students hired was Ann Graf, then a master’s student in UWM’s School of Information Studies, who developed a bibliography of resources available for Milwaukee history researchers in the many state and local area repositories. Published as the Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee by the Marquette University Press in 2014, with support from Marquette’s Institute for Urban Life (now the Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach), this project generated the substantive framework that was used to build EMKE. It should be noted that many of the citations included in the Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee are not listed as references on any EMKE entries; researchers may wish to consult both source lists as well as the supplementary online DigBib.
In 2010, Seligman and Anderson assembled an editorial board they tasked with advising them on the scope and direction of the project. The board consisted of scholars and librarians from many of the partnering institutions key to EMKE’s development. James Marten and Thomas Jablonsky represented the Marquette University History Department, Michael Doylen and Ellen Engseth the UWM Libraries and Archives, and Scott Stroh and Steve Daily the Milwaukee County Historical Society. Popular Milwaukee historian John Gurda also shared his broad expertise during the board’s deliberations. Columbia University’s Kenneth Jackson, editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, also supported the EMKE as a member of the editorial board.
Meeting monthly between 2010 and 2011, the editorial board developed a list of fourteen rubrics, or subject areas, to build and organize the encyclopedia’s content. To build the list of rubrics, the editors examined the contents that structured peer projects such as the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the Encyclopedia of New York City, and the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and then modified them to suit the context of Milwaukee history. Ultimately, the areas included topics such as Arts and Culture, Natural and Built Environment, and Transportation, Infrastructure, and Public Services. These rubrics remain the main organizing structure for EMKE’s table of contents and can be viewed under “Browse by Subject.” UWM undergraduate student Andrew Swanson, whose work was supported by a grant from UWM’s Office of Undergraduate Research, scoured major books and articles on Milwaukee history in order to compile a list of potential entry topics and associate them with the appropriate rubrics. The board then reviewed Swanson’s list in order to generate names for over 700 entries—people, places, events, and major themes—that would illuminate these subject areas and populate the EMKE Table of Contents. In generating the Table of Contents, the board considered several questions: What entries should be included? How long should these entries be? Who should write them? Is there secondary scholarship to support the topic? If not, are there enough primary sources? How does the existing scholarship suggest the topic should be treated? The board assigned a word length for each proposed entry from 250 to 3,000 words and offered guidance on the scope and tone of topics where necessary.
After 2012, the editorial board remained available for consultation while Anderson and Seligman went to work building EMKE’s content. Marten and Jablonsky stayed on as Senior Editors. The editorial team met regularly to reconcile overlapping topics, establish editorial workflows and responsibilities, and identify and commission authors. Many scholars and local authorities were established experts on certain topics and were willing and able to write EMKE entries for a modest honorarium. Most topics, however, did not have such an established knowledge base, so EMKE’s senior staff relied on a deep pool of graduate and undergraduate students from UWM and Marquette to write over half of the encyclopedia’s entries under faculty supervision. Graduate students also conducted fact-checking, image research, cross-referencing, website testing, and publicity work. In all, EMKE proudly employed fifty-five students through research assistantships, hourly positions, fellowships, internships, and other opportunities that offered hands-on professional experiences in building a major public history project.
Editorial Workflow and Infrastructure
In order to support the scholarly integrity of the EMKE, each entry went through a rigorous process of writing, editing, fact-checking and review. Upon entry assignment, writers received guidelines that outlined their responsibilities and details about their entry. Rubric editors worked closely with authors on the entry’s tone, style, scope, and length. Authors are named at the bottom of each entry to credit their work of historical interpretation. After the author and editor agreed on revisions, the editor sent the entry on for fact-checking. Using a color-coded system developed by Michelle Felski-Smith, graduate and undergraduate student research assistants checked the edited entries against available and reliable resources. They alerted editors to points of clarification or discrepancy for immediate attention or in case of future inquiry. The assigned editor then reviewed the fact-checked entry, deciding how to resolve any discrepancies before sending it on to an assigned Lead Editor for a secondary review. Seligman then copyedited each entry, ensuring it was consistent with the style and authoritative tone of the encyclopedia, and then manually posted it on the EMKE website and made live links in each entry’s footnotes. The entry was then scheduled for publication, often marking an important event, anniversary, celebration, or other relevant date, and our graduate assistant social media specialist prepared a Facebook and Twitter post publicizing the entry. As the encyclopedia neared its completion in 2020, each entry was reviewed again for potential cross-references with other relevant EMKE entries, and links to these other entries were added both within the entry text and in the “See Also” section below the entry. Our Program Assistant, Joan Baumgart, paid external authors after their entries went into fact-checking and, throughout this process, backed up entry versions in UWM’s U-Drive system. As each entry proceeded through the editorial process, we tracked its status through the back-end system (explained below) and a shared, cloud-based spreadsheet. Authors were also invited to contribute to our collection of Understories illuminating the research process.
In preparing each entry for publication, EMKE staff also conducted a parallel process of image and map research to further illuminate entry topics. Building on the work of several prior students, Amy Fels, our primary image researcher, developed a thorough and efficient process of conducting this research. First, Fels identified images for use with an entry from an array of local, state, national, and digital repositories. She then submitted these findings to the entry’s editor for review, selecting up to five images to accompany an entry. After receiving editorial approval, Fels then contacted the appropriate representatives from the images’ repositories to obtain permission to use the images in EMKE. Images from some sources, like the Library of Congress, Flickr, and Wikimedia Commons, were in the public domain and did not require permission. EMKE obtained standing permission from other sources, like UWM Libraries and Marquette University Archives, to use images in their collections. Most other repositories required permission and payment for use of each of their images. Upon obtaining permission for their use, Fels downloaded the images and saved them along with their corresponding permission letters to UWM’s U-Drive system using a standardized naming protocol. Fels then uploaded the images to the EMKE website, wrote the captions and supplied identifying information, and attached this information to the designated entry. Fels tracked the progress of each image, caption drafts, and identifying information in a master image research spreadsheet. In all cases, the original repositories continue to own the images used in the EMKE. Readers who wish to reuse images for their own purposes should contact the repositories, which can be identified by clicking on the image and reading the metadata to its right.
As a digital project, EMKE required an extensive digital infrastructure to advance and track the progress of work through the production and editorial processes, save and back up multiple versions of entries and images, and offer our audiences reliable access to our content. EMKE’s senior staff worked closely with the web development team in UWM’s University Information Technology Services (UITS) to design, build, and host the encyclopedia’s digital platforms. First, UITS developed a “back-end system” for EMKE staff to collect and preserve entry drafts from authors, advance entries through the editorial process, and track entry versions along the way. UITS staff then built the public-facing, or “front-end” EMKE website on which the encyclopedia’s completed content, including entries, images, and maps, was published. This site had its own back-end system where all completed content was manually uploaded onto the EMKE website, allowing for another stage of review. Seligman uploaded entries as part of her final review process, and Fels uploaded images and maps at the conclusion of her image research workflow. Both the front and back-end systems were built using the WordPress open-source web content management platform, with significant custom presentation and content management functionality developed by UWM to meet the needs of the encyclopedia. The system has been operational since 2014. EMKE has a long-term commitment from UWM to host and maintain these platforms on the university’s virtual private cloud infrastructure, powered by Amazon Web Services.
Funding and Support
Commissioning entries, hiring an expansive staff, and building the website were made possible through the generous backing of many partners. As the project’s home institution, UWM has offered many forms of support throughout EMKE’s development. UWM’s Research Growth Initiative (RGI) grants bookended the project’s development. A 2010 RGI supported crucial foundational work by funding early project staff, including Program Assistant Joan Baumgart, as well as compensation for the editorial board. Another RGI in 2017 funded the completion of key technical capacities on the EMKE website as well as image research, the writing and fact-checking of remaining entries, and the development and implementation of our digital bibliography and cross-references. A 2011 UWM Digital Futures grant funded the work of UITS in defining the scope, priorities, and timeline for the digital work needed for EMKE. Moreover, UWM’s College of Letters and Science, Chancellor’s office, Provost’s office, Graduate School, and Office of Undergraduate Research, as well as Marquette University’s History Department and Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach offered essential support for graduate and undergraduate student entry writers, researchers, and fact-checkers through research assistantships, hourly positions, fellowships, and internships. The UWM Libraries generously made images available to the EMKE without cost and supported the project with uncounted staff time. The hiring of external authors, graduate assistants, and administrative staff, and digital work was made possible through a major award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program in 2012. EMKE also received generous support at a crucial juncture from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and several private donors with the assistance of the UWM Foundation.
Launch and Future
After a decade of production, EMKE neared the completion of the editorial board’s list of planned entries, and senior staff turned to publicizing the encyclopedia’s teaching and learning resources. UITS launched the EMKE website in 2013, and senior staff published new entries every week to populate the site while also drawing attention to the variety of information the encyclopedia provided its users through social media posts. This accelerated to the publication and promotion of new entries every day by 2018 as an increasing amount of content completed the editorial process. That year also marked a transition in senior staff as EMKE hired Joseph Walzer on a Project Director after Margo Anderson’s retirement. Walzer first joined the project as a graduate research assistant in 2013 and wrote over thirty entries for EMKE before his graduation with a Ph.D. from UWM’s History Department in 2017. As Project Director, Walzer took over much of the work supervising student workers, scheduling entries for publication, and managing the remaining cross-referencing, final website adjustments, and table creation. As the project wrapped up its primary content, EMKE added a curricular resource page for instructors at many levels to access teacher-made lesson plans on different aspects of Milwaukee history, and the “DigBib,” a digital extension of the project’s 2014 Bibliography of Metropolitan Milwaukee. EMKE officially launched in March 2020 with a series of local media appearances and public talks that highlighted the wide range of information and resources the encyclopedia offers its users. Since then, the EMKE has been increasingly used as a foundation for teaching and class assignments.
Since its launch, EMKE has enjoyed a growing user base and the frequent submissions of suggested corrections, new information, and general observations we had always hoped our readers would offer through the site’s Contact Us and User Comments features. One of the key advantages of EMKE’s digital format is the ability for the project to remain “evergreen”—responding to new information, cultivating lines of community engagement, and developing new resources. We are currently collecting user comments, resolving discrepancies where necessary, and archiving suggestions for major changes and new entries for future reference. The EMKE website and our finely-honed editorial workflows offer us the capacity to add new entries in the future, but we do not have plans to do so at this time. EMKE has relied on the important work that many scholars and community experts have done to tell the complex histories of the Greater Milwaukee area. Over the last decade, however, we have learned that much more needs to be done. EMKE is committed to helping new and established historians illuminate untold stories of the people, places, and events of Milwaukee’s past and enhance their knowledge of Milwaukee history and its relationship to the broader contexts of American and global history and culture.
Joseph B. Walzer