HistoryLink.org -- A Slideshow History of the First Years

  • By Heather MacIntosh
  • Posted 1/15/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7209

HistoryLink.org began in the minds of Walt Crowley (1947-2007) and Paul Dorpat, Seattle historians.

Initially, the two conceived of a printed encyclopedia that would update Clarence Bagley's three-volume set entitled The History of King County. These tomes, published in 1929, recounted the story of Seattle and King County's early pioneers and included biographies of famous men.

Crowley and Dorpat sought a more inclusive alternative, which would combine multiple histories including the story of women, labor, ethnic minorities, the environment, and other subjects often marginalized in comprehensive printed histories.

The original idea sought to encompass these histories as they pertained to Seattle and King County.

The World Wide Web's egalitarian spirit --a limitless network of linked information -- appealed to Walt Crowley who began publishing in 1967. As an editor at the Helix, a University of Washington underground newspaper, Walt began his Seattle career as an activist and writer/journalist. He would bring his experience to local politics and history writing over the next several decades.

He met Paul Dorpat while working on the newpaper. Paul was the Helix's editor and publisher.

Walt's wife, Marie McCaffrey, with whom he operated a writing and design consultancy, thought the historians should produce their encyclopedia project on the web.

In December 1997, Walt sketched the layout for the front page, which would provide a basic outline for the database's architecture.

The site would have three different kinds of files: "Metropedias" (later renamed Cyberpedias), like conventional encyclopedia articles, would be approximately 1,000 words and treat biographies, big ideas, overview histories, etc.; "Timelines" would describe events; and "People's Histories" would include submissions from the public, much like oral histories.

The People's History library of files (discrete from essays researched, documented, and written by local professional historians and writers) would allow for public participation in the project.

At this point, Walt, Marie, and Paul needed help -- open-minded (and generous) technical support -- that could put their idea on the web. Placing a demonstration site online would generate interest and potential sponsorship.

Steve Leith put together the HTML for the demonstration site. His background included educational technology projects and webdesigns for small businesses.

The demonstration site debuted in May of 1998. It spelled out the egalitarian mission of the project, and the primary elements of the site's design.

The temporary site also included a short slide show.

The demonstration site, and Walt and Marie's fundraising efforts, paid off.

Longtime Seattle philanthropist Patsy Collins provided the first $25,000 sponsorship for further development of the idea. Patsy wrote the check in good faith -- she had never used the internet herself.

This seed money was used to hire HistoryLink's first consultants, many of whom still work on the project.

During the Summer and early Fall of 1998, Walt assembled a number of writers, editors, and technical specialists who helped tweak the initial database concept.

Every other week, HistoryLink contributors gathered around the kitchen table at Walt's house to discuss the many elements of good database design and history writing for the web.

HistoryLink.org contributers each added a variety of perspectives to the site and its promotion within the community. Writers were chosen based on their community activism as much as their publishing history.

Suburban King County history, like histories of minority groups, had often been ignored by historians writing for a large audience. Much of the County's history lay in the archives of small historical societies, and in publications produced by these groups. Limited funding made mass production of these histories difficult.

HistoryLink sought to balance the copious amounts of Seattle history with King County content. Alan Stein, later president of the Association of King County Historical Organizations, became HistoryLink's suburban editor, and in so doing, helped pull the enormous community of local historical organizations into the production of HistoryLink.

The project also needed strong direction and editorial experience. Walt, who serves as Executive Editor, hired Priscilla Long, a historian and prolific writer and editor, as Senior Editor in the summer of 1998. She is responsible for editing all verbal content of HistoryLink.

Patrick McRoberts, editor of the literary magazine Point No Point soon became Associate Site Editor.

The work of raising money, writing grants and marketing the site was more than one executive could handle. In August of 1998, Walt hired Heather MacIntosh, an architectural historian recently arrived from Virginia, to apply her experience with databases, grants, and public history projects to the new site.

In November of 1998, she became History Ink's Deputy Director, coordinating and designing educational outreach, grants, and writing content. She would eventually become editor of People's History essays.

In early Fall, computer artist Chris Goodman started providing image production assistance, working with both Marie on design and Steve with HTML programming.

Chris would later become HistoryLink.org's Site Administrator and Office Manager, taking over the role of site design and database programming. TVC Consultants constructed the initial database architecture.

Researcher Greg Lange, who would become one of HistoryLink.org's staff historians, provided critical archival support.

HistoryLink's primary fact-checker, and principal contributor of Timeline essays, Greg also helped visitors with questions about local history, from property research to family stories to business histories.

This handful of contributors worked diligently to produce hundreds of essays for its November 11, 1998, "soft launch."

Speakeasy hosted this event, as well as the site until HistoryLink.org purchased its own server in February 2000.

After numerous additions, new files, and a revised site, HistoryLink.org officially launched on January 15, 1999, Martin Luther King Jr's birthday.

HistoryLink.org debuted at the Seattle Center, taking part in its the Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Festal celebration.

At the same time, HistoryLink.org moved into its new office in downtown Seattle, in the historic Joshua Green Building.

In its first year, HistoryLink.org registered more than three million hits, a phenomenal accomplishment for a history website.

The site also raised almost $300,000 toward its development, programming, and operational expenses.

HistoryLink.org received more than a dozen mentions in The Seattle Times in 1999, boosting visitation. HistoryLink.org's team soon realized that a combination of publicity and topical historical essays equaled more hits.

The Word Trade Organization's 1999 convention in Seattle and the massive demonstrations in opposition pushed HistoryLink.org's visitation over the top when it posted a live "WTO Cam" from its window overlooking Westlake Center -- ground zero for the WTO demonstrations. During the week of WTO, HistoryLink received over one and a half million hits, and unending phone calls from press around the world.

HistoryLink.org also discovered that many potential sponsors were interested not only in web content, but in more conventional publications.

In 1999, HistoryLink.org produced its first book, The Story of Union Station in Seattle, commissioned by Sound Transit. HistoryLink's combined design, research, and writing expertise all went into the publication.

As of April of 2000, HistoryLink had raised over $500,000, and maintained five relatively full-time staff, and several half-time positions.

HistoryLink's ultimate goal is to accumulate a comprehensive overview of Seattle and King County history by critical sesquicentennials.

Seattle was founded in 1851; King County was created in 1852.

HistoryLink's long term goal is to export the site's design to other communities. History Ink, the nonprofit organization that supports HistoryLink, is gearing up to share its design with interested towns and cities (and relay the many lessons learned over the past years).

This is a slideshow photo essay on the history of HistoryLink.org, the evolving online encyclopedia of Washington state history that you are here looking at. Written and Curated by Heather MacIntosh.

Note: This slide show was written in 1999, before HistoryLink expanded its content and scope in 2003 to cover the history of all of Washington state. We offer it here as a snapshot in time of the project's genesis and evolution.

-- Walt Crowley
President & Executive Directory
History Ink/HistoryLink.org
November 2006

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Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You