Working as a fact-checker for the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee through UWM’s Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship program has given me a very exciting opportunity. I am able to really dive into historical research outside of a classroom setting. While fact-checking may not be on the frontlines of the research process tracking down and interpreting primary documents or authoring specific entries for the Encyclopedia, it plays a critical role in ensuring the accuracy of the information in the Encyclopedia.
Fact-checking can be both maddening and exciting all at the same time. The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee will do many great things. Not only is the project reporting on the exciting and often overlooked history of Milwaukee, it is drawing attention to areas where more research has yet to be done. Some topics seem incredibly archaic and have been lost to history. This is where the Encyclopedia comes in. It dusts off old topics and ones that have been long since forgotten and shines a bright light on them. Unfortunately, from a fact-checking perspective, topics that are buried by time can be hard to find information about. This is where my frustration as a fact-checker begins and that is something that I have had to come to terms with.
Fact-checking is incredibly interesting. I get to read about a wide range of topics and learn new and interesting things about Milwaukee. Many of the entries I work with are on topics that I have never heard of before, such as the Milwaukee Musical Society. This makes my job even more exciting. My tasks begin when I receive an entry that has been highlighted and commented on by a graduate student Research Assistant. The highlights indicate what needs to be checked. From there, I begin my search. I am basically a detective of history. In this great age of technology and digitized books, I can do most of my work from a computer while every once in a while cracking open a real live book. My job is not to go back and read the original primary documents the author used but to confirm information such as names, dates, spelling, and key events against books and articles written by other scholars. Some of the information comes easy, but some can be incredibly hard to track down. Difficult facts to confirm usually come from older topics, but newer topics can also be difficult to work with. Dead ends result when there is just not a lot of information published on a topic.
An example of the frustration I experience comes with one of the entries that appeared in my e-mail inbox for fact-checking. The entry I was to work with was the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, formerly known as the Bonne Amie Musical Circle. This organization was founded in 1900 and to this day still has regular performances. They are quite good; I recommend a quick YouTube search. One of the best perks about being a fact-checker is getting to learn about a lot of Milwaukee’s secrets. I was not aware that Milwaukee had and still has a mandolin orchestra.
As I did a quick read over of the article, I got to the section titled “Further Reading,” which is often one of the biggest hints about where I should get my work started. To my utter disappointment, under this section it read, “There are no good secondary sources, but the Mandolin Orchestra website does include a brief history.” Naturally, most of the information in the article came from the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra website. This website appeared trustworthy because it was written by the group themselves; they are obviously going to know the most about their own history. We do have to be careful with websites however. Not all organizations are as trustworthy as the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra. Some website creators may exaggerate, mislead, or simply just give false information. As a fact-checker, my main job is to confirm the information within the article while using different sources than the ones used by the author. So I dug for independent information regarding the Mandolin Orchestra, but my search yielded no results. Since my desperate attempt to find any information regarding the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra turned up empty, I decided to simply trust the information on their website. It really was the only source regarding the group. Sometimes this is the only option.
I also experienced frustration as a fact-checker when I received the Milwaukee Highland Games entry. The Milwaukee Highland Games is a festival that is still put on every year. This festival is also referred to as the Milwaukee Scottish Fest. Here, festival goers can experience many aspects of Scottish culture from music and dancing to traditional Scottish athletic competitions such as the caber tern. This is a festival that I had never heard of, and it sounds incredibly interesting. I might try my hand at the hammer throw next year. The games used to be incredibly popular but are not as well known today. This presented an unfortunate problem for me as a fact-checker.
I began my search for information. As with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra entry, my desperate search came to a dead end. However, I did stumble across an article written in 1979 for the Magazine of the Milwaukee County Historical Society called “The Milwaukee Highland Games.” This was exactly what I was looking for. The UWM Golda Meir library archives had a copy of this issue, so I breezed over to the archives and got the article pulled. I began reading and feverishly taking notes until I realized that this was the exact same article that the author used in researching the entry. Instead of flipping the table in frustration, I decided to take this as a learning experience for myself as a fact-checker. I need to make sure to take careful note of the sources used by the authors of the Encyclopedia entries. As I mentioned earlier however, sometimes I have to make peace with the fact that there simply has not been a lot written about a topic. In that case, I have to use the sources I have at my disposal. The author of this article used the only secondary literature written about the Highland Games in Milwaukee.
Many times I have spent hours trying to find information regarding a topic with nothing to show for it. The more experience I get being a part of the research process, the more I have come to see that a lack of information about a topic should not be seen as a source of frustration but something exciting. We are sailing the uncharted waters of Milwaukee history! This is a beautiful thing and it is exactly what the major goal of the Encyclopedia is. We are reporting on known topics as well as unknown topics in order to spread and save Milwaukee’s deep and colorful history. One of the great things that the Encyclopedia will do is direct attention to the lesser known topics. How important were the Highland Games to the citizens of Milwaukee and what did they mean to immigrants? How did the Milwaukee Musical Society, another lesser known aspect of Milwaukee history, help develop the city’s culture and music scene? Not only is the Encyclopedia preserving Milwaukee’s rich history but it is providing historians with a springboard to further our historical understanding of what it means to be Milwaukeeans.