What sets the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture apart from its peers across the country? “I don’t think any other state encyclopedia has an entry on a death metal band,” offers Mike Keckhaver, the online collection’s media editor and author of the entry on the band in question, North Little Rock’s Rwake.
Other topics on which the EOA (encyclopediaofarkansas.net) likely has a monopoly among similar projects: cheese dip (“… considered to be an important part of Arkansas’s food culture”), drag shows (“… have their roots in rural folk dramas often used as fundraisers for community institutions”) and slime molds (“… do not have a particularly attractive name, but some examples produce fruiting bodies that are miniature objects of considerable beauty”).
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas takes on topics that might be of broader interest, of course: The entry on the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School is the EOA’s most visited page, often, judging from the sorts of queries the staff gets, from students working on assignments, according to editor Guy Lancaster. That means the encyclopedia is fulfilling one of its original aims. A big reason the Central Arkansas Library System started the project in 2002 “was a recognition that, if we’re going to teach Arkansas history in secondary schools, we need a resource,” said Susan Gele, assistant director, public relations for the library.
Officially launched in 2006 as a project of CALS’ Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the encyclopedia began with 700 entries and 900 pieces of multimedia. Today, thanks to a staff of four and dozens of volunteer contributors who receive an honorarium of 5 cents per word, the EOA counts more than 3,600 entries and 5,000 pieces of media within its collection. CALS has pledged to support the encyclopedia in perpetuity; along the way, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Arkansas General Assembly, the Arkansas Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other foundations and donations have helped it grow.
Two recent grants came from the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission to add entries on the Civil War in Arkansas. The encyclopedia already had entries on significant battles; what they’ve added are mostly skirmishes, Lancaster said, “where a group of five people go out foraging for something and runs across a group of four bushwhackers and they trade bullets for a little bit and then back away.
“I really enjoy these because not only do they make the Civil War history more local — the war is now suddenly not something that happened around Pea Ridge and around Helena or around Arkansas Post — but it shows the more likely average war experience of your soldier, that there’s a lot of waiting around, there’s a lot of small-scale conflict, a lot of just holding territory. I tell Mark Christ [of the Sesquicentennial Commission] that it actually makes the Civil War more interesting by making it boring.”
Lancaster said local history often gets dismissed as unimportant, too quotidian.
“But really local history is where it’s at,” he said. “That’s where most people are connecting with whatever is happening in the wider world.”
We asked Encyclopedia of Arkansas Editor Guy Lancaster, an occasional contributor to the Arkansas Times, to pass along some of his favorite entries. Here is a sampling:
Freda Hogan Ameringer: “Socialist, suffragette, and all-around amazing woman.”
Bullfrog Valley Gang: “An international counterfeiting cartel based in the hills of Pope County — paging Guy Ritchie.”
Grannis Vigil and Incoming Kingdom Missionary Unit: “So far, no one predicting the Second Coming has been proven right.”
Mitchell v. Globe International Publishing: “Oddly enough, ‘Pregnancy Forces Granny to Quit Work at Age 101’ wasn’t quite an honest headline.”
Richard Sharpe Shaver: “If a mentally ill former hobo managed to influence science fiction so much, what does that say about the genre?”
Skipper v. United Central Life Insurance: “The Arkansas Gazette described it as ‘perhaps the strangest case in the criminal annals of Arkansas,’ and that’s saying something.”
Helen Spence: “She killed the man who shot her pa, and won the hearts of many.”
“The White River Kid”: “Arguably the worst movie filmed in Arkansas. Any decent state encyclopedia would be well within its rights to overlook this direct-to-video travesty that was first released on VHS in Bulgaria and Spain, but we are not any ordinary state encyclopedia. I like to think that our inclusion of this raging mess of inconsistent plot and bad acting is a testament of our commitment to cover all aspects of the state’s history and culture, no matter how obscure or regrettable.”