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The Lone Star State Crosses a New Frontier

Conversation with Douglas Barnett

HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

Eighteen humanities councils are developing online encyclopedias with NEH support. Chairman William R. Ferris talks with Douglas E. Barnett of Texas, whose pioneering work on the NEW HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE has carved a new path.

William R. Ferris: You produced the New Handbook of Texas as a six-volume print version, and now online. What are the advantages of the online version?

Douglas E. Barnett: The online version gives you a num-ber of options that you don’t have with print. To our mind, that extends the value of the work. It becomes a simple matter now to search through every word of the six-volume print edition and find things that might be difficult to locate if you were just trying to find them by title. It gives you enormously increased access to the content of the book.

Ferris: How long did the Handbook take from the beginning of the print version through the creation of the website?

Barnett: About seventeen years. We took fourteen years to prepare the revised print edition, the New Handbook of Texas. We began in September of 1982 on that project, and the book came out in June of 1996. We went almost immediately into developing the electronic edition, formally starting in the spring of 1997. The online Handbook was officially launched February of 1999.

Ferris: How did you come up with the original idea for the Handbook? And what is in it?

Barnett: The original idea for the Handbook traces back to about 1940. Walter Prescott Webb, who was the director of the Texas State Historical Association, had in mind the need to pull together an accessible, ready reference work on Texas that would be affordable to the general reader.

He launched the first Handbook of Texas project in 1940. That led to the publication of a two-volume Handbook of Texas in 1952. That edition defined our basic objectives: to provide a comprehensive, authoritative, and encyclopedic treatment of Texas that gives readers quick access to short scholarly articles on essentially any aspect of Texas history.

Ferris: How will the topics be updated?

Barnett: That is one of the things the online edition helps us to address. There will be periodic efforts to look through broad areas with specialists and review them across the board. In the meantime, the online edition gives us the ability to bring in individual corrections or updates on a daily basis.

Ferris: Do you consider the Handbook finished or will it ever be finished?

Barnett: The project has convinced us, once and for all, that history is never finished. Fortunately, the online edition gives us even more ability to respond to this. As we went through the handbook project, we found time and time again that even when the basic facts of an article had not changed since our previous edition, we frequently had to revise the article to address new sorts of questions. So even if we had the idea that the facts were the facts and wouldn’t ever change (which often isn’t the case), we can’t fully anticipate the questions our children and grandchildren may need to have answered. For that reason alone, we feel history is an ongoing process and that our coverage of it is never finished.

Ferris: How did you expect the online Handbook would be used and have you been surprised at the ways that people do use it?

Barnett: Those have probably been some of the largest surprises we have seen with the online Handbook. Two in particular come to mind.

One is we assumed that the majority of people using the online Handbook would be people who were familiar with the New Handbook of Texas and wanted to use it online and take advantage of its searching abilities. The truth has turned out to be the opposite. The large majority of people using the online Handbook do not appear to be familiar with the print edition. In fact, they didn’t even arrive at the Handbook of Texas Online intentionally. They were just looking for information with a search engine and it brought them to us.

Beyond that, there have been real surprises in the way people use the online edition. We frequently talk with people who caution us to remember that people aren’t going to read it article by article, the way they do a book. Yet we have heard from several online readers who are doing exactly that. They are sitting out there online, reading it article by article. That was a big surprise to us.

Ferris: I remember when we were doing the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, one of the most interesting subjects was air conditioning. The article showed what an enormous impact air conditioning had on business and the development of large cities in the South. What can Texans learn about themselves from the Handbook?

Barnett: That’s a good place to start, actually. They can learn a lot about the importance air conditioning has had in the development of Texas. One of our early editorial discussions focused on how best to update the article on air conditioning, which had appeared in previous editions of the Handbook. There was even some question of whether the topic was sufficiently important, historically. But air conditioning in Texas dates back at least to the eighteenth century, when Spanish Texans constructed houses using adobe bricks that helped keep the inside cool during the day. It is a relatively recent phenomenon to have refrigerated air conditioning, but the concept of conditioning your homes to cool the air is an old one historically.

Ferris: Are there new categories for entries cropping up, topics that you had not thought about?

Barnett: Many topics are reemerging in new ways. For instance, the Handbook has a great deal of coverage of community history. We include approximately seventy-five hundred articles on communities in Texas, ranging from small settlements to large urban areas. When we reviewed this material in the 1980s, we found that the whole field had something of a renaissance. Community history had become a broader concept, as much grounded in social and cultural history as in political and economic history.

We saw similar things with subjects such as business history and cultural history. The literature available on the historical roles played by different groups of people in the state is much broader now than, for example, fifty years ago.

Ferris: How would you research a subject like the Vietnam War and Texas through the Handbook?

Barnett: With the online one, you can simply go to the search feature and type in the words “Vietnam War.” Because that is a relatively recent part of our history, you can do that safely without being overwhelmed by the number of entries you might receive if you tried the same thing with World War II. You would come back with about twenty-seven articles that deal with people who were involved in the war, military bases in Texas that were significantly connected to the war effort, and the effect of the Vietnam War on particular businesses or industries in Texas. The Handbook will then direct you to a number of other articles which may not specifically mention the war but discuss that time period in Texas or things that were being affected by the war.

Ferris: Doug, you have talked about creating an array of books from the basic Handbook simply by using the tools available on your website. What kind of books could you create in this way?

Barnett: We see a need to develop smaller versions of the Handbook that play to the interest of particular groups of people. One book that we have in mind reminds me of the recent project NEH has completed, looking at jazz in the United States. We hope to do a book that pulls out all of the articles on music in Texas, which will be several hundred, and puts them together as an attractive little volume for readers who are particularly interested in that subject. Really, the possibilities are almost limitless. You could think of articles on particular groups of people, on cultural topics such as religion, even articles on a small area such as counties.

I would love to do a small book on the medical history of Texas. It would be fascinating to pull out all the articles that range from Native American health practices to heart bypass surgery today.

Ferris: You had mentioned that when President Bush was governor of Texas, he wanted to create a website for the handicapped, and you were able to do that almost overnight through searches on your Handbook website. How did that come about?

Barnett: It was a project done by a group called the Texas Governor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. They wanted to produce a history of disability in Texas as part of their sixtieth anniversary, but they had difficulty finding information that would give a personal face to that story in Texas. They could find information about the history of institutions or organizations, but not much about people who had had disabilities.

One day the director of the organization called to say the online Handbook had helped them to do just that. I was curious to hear what she had to say because, to the best of my knowledge, disability had not been a subject we tried to cover formally in the Handbook. But she and her staff used an aspect of the search tool that is very powerful called “proximity searching.” This allows you to search everything in the Handbook for any concept that you can define as a string of words beginning with one word and ending with another.

They took that tool and looked for all the articles with a passage, for example, that began with the word “lost,” and was followed within five words by the word “arm,” and all of a sudden they were able to find the nine or ten articles that mentioned a person who had lost an arm. They tried that variation with “legs” or “hands,” as well as other key words such as “wheelchair,” and were able to put together a long list of people who were in the Handbook of Texas and happened to have a disability of one sort or another. The disability was not why they were in the Handbook. They were in the Handbook because they were important to Texas history in some way. That gave us a demonstration of how the search engine can be used with an online encyclopedia to bring material together in ways that go beyond our original conception.

Ferris: That’s really exciting.

Barnett: I was just so thrilled when she called because I really could not imagine how we had been that much help to her.

Ferris: I have a daughter in high school and I am constantly amazed at how adept the younger generation is at using technology. I understand you have two school-age sons. Have your sons had an influence on how you shaped the Handbook?

Barnett: I look to them as a very important bellwether on what works and what doesn’t work with print versus electronic books. It is one of the reasons I’m confident that in moving the Handbook of Texas into the electronic arena we are not compromising the print edition. What I see in working with students who are eight to fourteen years old is that they use both. They appreciate both, they relish both, and, most importantly for us as publishers, they expect both. They use each for what works best for the task at hand. They have also shown me that students are incredibly versatile at picking up these technologies. We worked recently with Marsha Crow, a fourth-grade teacher in the Round Rock school district who developed an online guide to the Handbook keyed to the fourth-grade social studies curriculum required in Texas. She called this spring and invited me to watch her class work through a lesson plan using one of those notebook computer carts that allows a teacher to roll a cart into their classroom with, say, twenty notebook computers in it.

For that exercise, each one of these fourth-grade students was going to come up to the cart, get a computer out, take it to his or her desk, log onto the Internet, find an article on a particular ethnic group in the online Handbook, open the article, download it to a computer, and compose a short article based on that information. The students would have about thirty minutes to do this, and this was going to be the first time they’d done it.

I went, but I was worried that there would be problems. But those kids went up there and got computers, booted them up and downloaded the necessary Handbook articles, and in twenty minutes half of them had finished the assignment and were busy working as freelance trouble-shooters for the students who were having difficulties. Any doubts I had about their ability to handle electronic tools down the road went out the window that day.

Ferris: Amazing. Do students use your site often and what is the most popular subject for them?

Barnett: Students use it a lot and the most popular subject is whatever report is due the next day. We get a number of urgent requests for information needed “before tomorrow morning.”

One of the refreshing things about working with students is they are very direct. There is no pretense. They just come right to you with what they need. But, in a broader sense, the subjects vary quite a bit. One of the constants seems to be biographies. I think both the school curriculum and students’ interests naturally run to people, to individuals. They are also very interested in community history. We get a lot of questions from students and young people about a particular historical event in their community or how they can find information about a particular place. Beyond that, they really run the gamut. They are interested in a wide range of subjects.

Ferris: How did you have to adapt the Handbook for student use?

Barnett: That is still very much in process. To begin with, we edited the New Handbook of Texas to be reasonably accessible to a seventh-grade audience, because that is the principal grade level where Texas history is covered. So the basic text had been edited with the idea that seventh graders would be trying to read it. As we moved online, we focused initially on making the entire text available in a straightforward and usable way. In the future we plan to add illustrations and multimedia elements to make the site even more engaging for students. We are also working with classroom teachers to create tools such as lesson plans and student guides that will help students come more directly to the Handbook for their research needs.

The fourth-grade teacher who worked with us this past year developed a curriculum alignment tool for teachers and also produced a student version that lets the students come to it. If they have been assigned Spanish explorers or German immigrants, there are headings they can look to that have some of the commonly assigned research areas listed.

Ferris: Is the Handbook changing the way history is taught in the classroom?

Barnett: I think the Handbook and many other of the websites that are coming online that have solid scholarly content or a good array of primary resources are encouraging the trend in education of having students take responsibility for researching and learning material on their own, and then writing up the results, at what I think are very early ages by the standards of when I went to school.

It was not unusual at all for my fourth-grade son to have a research project every nine weeks and to be asked to provide at least two Internet sources for each one of his research papers. So I think the online resources encourage students to get involved in doing research and creating history reports of their own, because it can be so much more accessible. It can be done from the library or the classroom if the connections are available.

Students are not as intimidated by the online materials as they sometimes are by large, heavy reference works. I think it gives the students and the teachers a sense of empowerment when it comes to taking charge of mastering the information they need to know. It’s more interactive for them, for instance, than a book. They can experiment and try different approaches to finding what they need.

Ferris: Doug, you have been working with one of the schools in our NEH Schools for a New Millennium project, the Hogg Middle School in Houston. I understand the students there are interviewing World War II veterans. Can you tell me about that project?

Barnett: That is a wonderful program and a great example of ways the online Handbook and other online resources are playing to this interest in having students learn history by doing history.

We are working with Rice University’s Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning and Hogg Middle School to incorporate the concept of community into the social studies curriculum from sixth through eighth grade. We have challenged the students to go out into their community, which is an area known as Houston Heights, and research the history of that community in depth and write it up themselves.

One of their projects this past year has been to interview World War II veterans from the Heights and record their oral histories. They have just put up a marvelous website that has a complete transcript and an electronic audio version of the interview. You have seventh-grade students interviewing seventy-year-old veterans of World War II, and they are both learning from each other.

Ferris: Later on, the students at Hogg are going to document historic buildings as well. How will the Handbook be used for that project?

Barnett: There is a great deal of community history that simply is beyond the scope of a print work to pull together and publish. There aren’t enough authors and it would cost far too much to do. Our idea is that by working with schools and communities, they can get out at the neighborhood level and do the research and write up material about the history of particular buildings or businesses or cultural features. We are going to be helping them, with Rice University, to create a website we can link to from the single article on Houston Heights in the online Handbook.

Ferris: That is really exciting.

Barnett: We have very high hopes for it. I think it goes without saying that, of course, we don’t expect sixth graders or eighth graders to write at the level we would require for the New Handbook of Texas. But we know from our experience with programs such as History Day and Junior Historians of Texas that with guidance and with oversight from teachers and scholars, they can do research and they can write history. So it not only adds to our knowledge of what our history is, it creates this tremendous involvement and investment on the student’s part to appreciate history and be a part of it.

Ferris: Let me ask you what kind of responses you are getting from your users. Do they sometimes add information to an entry?

Barnett: The response has been overwhelming in the most positive way, but it does keep us busy. When we first launched the online Handbook in February of 1999, we were getting about three hundred thousand hits per month, visits to individual pages. This past month we were at about a million hits a month. Many of the people who come to the online Handbook take the time to send in a comment form. Some of them just want to tell us we did a good job, but many others want to point out to us a detail that we didn’t get in or perhaps one that was wrong. So we are getting a number of suggestions—I would say hundreds of suggestions in the last two years—for particular corrections we could make or specific details we can include to fill out a story. We are also just getting a lot of suggestions for new topics.

Ferris: That is wonderful. You have an ancillary website called My Texas. Can you tell me about that project?

Barnett: We don’t have it up and running yet, but it is the sort of electronic extension that we are very excited about. The idea comes from our experience of reading e-mails from people who wanted to share information with us about their history with a place or information passed down to them from family members.

We want to build an ancillary site that we are thinking of calling My Texas, where readers can come to tell us their stories, what they remember about a place, how it felt to them, or what was important to them about it. We will then connect these stories to relevant articles in the online Handbook. I think this takes the concept of a regional or state encyclopedia to an entirely new level, where you have the core that was created and overseen very carefully by scholars, and then you have this much broader nexus that would be built by the users as they use it.

Ferris: That’s beautiful. I know that the Texas Council for the Humanities has been involved in this effort. Doug, you have said that no one entity could produce the New Handbook of Texas. Who are your other partners?

Barnett: The partners are just the most important thing, and we had a large array of them in doing the New Handbook of Texas. The University of Texas at Austin has always been one of our principal partners, helping us with resources and providing space and encouragement. Almost every institution of higher education around the state provided release time for faculty or allowed students to participate. Foundations were a very important part of covering financial needs; we had about sixty charitable foundations from around the state helping pay for the Handbook. Most importantly, the National Endowment for Humanities was a major sponsor, and the Texas Council for the Humanities sponsored a number of grants that were most helpful in expanding our coverage of cultural history. Added to that are the individuals who came together to help. There were around thirty-five hundred individual participants in the handbook project. All together we have a collaboration of between three thousand or four thousand individuals —from lay historians to senior academic professionals, institutions of higher education across the state, and charitable foundations at the state and national level. All of that has to come together to make this happen.

Ferris: Many hands make light work.

Barnett: And they make great work.

Ferris: Right now, with help from NEH, eighteen states are starting to work on their own online encyclopedias. What advice would you give these groups? What should they look for? What should they avoid?

Barnett: They need to think very carefully, early on, about who they are and what they are trying to do—they are trying to create an encyclopedia of their state and cover its history and its people—and stay close to that. There will be innumerable temptations to move in directions that take you away from that core purpose. That purpose alone is plenty to try and deal with. Beyond that, I would suggest they be very open to what that history is—open to understanding history from a number of perspectives, not just in terms of subject matter, but also age level and location, from students to scholars, to seniors, to expatriates. A print encyclopedia may find its primary audience geographically within the state, but with an online resource you can’t make that assumption. You will have an audience that is drawn from across the country and I suspect worldwide. For any state in the United States, there are going to be people elsewhere in the world who are interested in some aspect of that state’s history, people from around the world who came from that state or whose ancestors came from it. You have to think about your audience as perhaps more varied and broader geographically than you might with a print encyclopedia.

Ferris: Doug, I don’t think there is anyone more eloquent about this whole process. Thank you. We are deeply grateful to you for having launched one of the most important developments for our nation in the field of humanities. We look to you and to the great state of Texas for a model for what other states will now develop.

Barnett: Thank you. I think it is an enormously important initiative.

About the Author

Douglas E. Barnett is assistant director and managing editor of the New Handbook of Texas,