“Encyclopedia of Cleveland History” celebrates 25th anniversary

The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History made its own history 25 years ago when it was launched as the first modern encyclopedic-style reference book to chronicle a detailed history of a major U.S. city.

A quarter-century later, the encyclopedia still serves as an invaluable one-stop tool and crash course on Greater Cleveland’s rich and storied past.

The late David Van Tassel, then professor and chair of Case Western Reserve University’s Department of History, founded and edited the encyclopedia in the 1980s.

The seed was planted when Homer Wadsworth, then of the Cleveland Foundation, and Van Tassel conceived the idea of writing a city encyclopedia. The foundation approved the concept and provided seed money (more than $500,000 was eventually raised from a variety of sources) for the first edition (1987) of Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Van Tassel brought on John Grabowski, his former graduate student who was with the Western Reserve Historical Society at the time, to help with the project. It forged a partnership between the university and historical society that continues today.

Grabowski, now the Krieger-Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History at Case Western Reserve and senior vice president for research and publications at the Western Reserve Historical Society, remains the online editor of the Encyclopedia and the Dictionary of Cleveland Biography.

By the 1980s, the discipline of history had branched into specialized fields—ethnic, environmental, science and technology, women’s, urban and other topics.

“David knew a general history approach would be impossible with changes in the field,” recalls Grabowski, “but an encyclopedia of articles was.”   Van Tassel also envisioned the work as a product that would bridge the worlds of academe and the public.

Van Tassel organized topic task forces of academics, history buffs and civic-minded folks to brainstorm ideas. Those suggestions, with others from the encyclopedia staff that included Mary Stavish, the project’s coordinator and a graduate student in history, eventually became 3,000 articles (and 1.2 million words) in the first edition.

Grabowski said talents from various disciplines across campus and the community were enlisted to write articles.

Jerzy Maciuszko, for instance, a Case Western Reserve alumnus in library science who taught Polish literature at the university, contributed articles about the city’s ethnic communities and libraries that appeared in the 1996 second edition.

Former graduate student John Vacha wrote almost every entry relating to newspapers and the history of journalism in the city. History professors, including Michael Altschul and the late Carl Ubbelohde, contributed Cleveland-centric articles related to their specializations or interests; in the case of Altschul, it was baseball.

Because the first edition of the encyclopedia was word heavy with no pictures, The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History project published pictorial-illustrated offshoots on sports, arts, women and a general Cleveland history which help set the basis for the second edition.

An illustrated bicentennial edition and companion Dictionary of Cleveland Biography then followed in 1996.

In May 1998, the encyclopedia made history again when an online edition was launched—the first in the country—at ech.case.edu.

“The concept of covering an entire city history in single volume no longer held,” Grabowski said, “and the new medium allowed for easier expansion and change over time.”

Soon other cities followed with encyclopedias, both hard copy and/or web-based, including: Indianapolis, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Louisville.

“There are now more than a dozen completed urban encyclopedias, and many more are in the pipeline. All of us who have been involved in that effort owe an enormous debt to the pioneers in Cleveland who showed us the way,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, the Jacques Barzun Professor of History at Columbia University and editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of New York City.

“Moreover, the Cleveland encyclopedia was also the first to move to a second edition and to go online,” Jackson continued. “In the future, we expect John Grabowski and his team to continue to lead and to demonstrate the enduring value of careful scholarship that is accessible, authoritative and readable.”

It was Van Tassel’s vision to have the encyclopedia on the Internet. He lived just long enough to see it through.

With the sudden passing of Van Tassel in 2000, Grabowski became editor and has seen the encyclopedia through several online transitions. Last year, it received a new look, with more pictures and links that take readers deeper into subjects and to primary sources.

New technologies will eventually make it easier, Grabowski said, to link the encyclopedia to the historical society’s vast archival sources.

“The encyclopedia first went online on FreeNet and then quickly adapted to the relatively new World Wide Web,” Grabowski said.

No longer confined to information between book covers, the encyclopedia has become an evolving web-based history with 4,400 articles and some 100,000 monthly hits from worldwide visitors searching for information.

The infrastructure to perpetuate the encyclopedia is in place. The position of editor is endowed through the Krieger-Mueller Associate Professor of Applied History (a shared position with the Western Reserve Historical Society) and Ralph Besse Fellowships provide graduate students support for updating and adding new articles while connecting students to Cleveland’s past.

To celebrate its anniversary, visit the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History at ech.case.edu/.