Columns » Bob McCord

Arkansas on-line

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The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture showed up on the Internet last week, and the people who took a look must have been pleased.

Two years ago Tom Dillard, then the head of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Main Library, had the idea for the encyclopedia. He left Little Rock to go to Fayetteville to become the head of special collections at the University of Arkansas. However, he continues to be the editor of the encyclopedia, although Nathania Sawyer was hired to be the senior editor and hire the staff of five people. The Butler Center, now headed by David Stricklin, owns the encyclopedia, which was made possible by $2 million in contributions largely from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Arkansas Humanities Council.

More than 30 other states have these Internet encyclopedias, which, of course, are useful for students, writers, historians and people who are simply interested in the people who were and are responsible for what has happened in their part of the country. In Arkansas, one has to go back to 1686 when it was first settled.

The attraction of a book on the Internet rather than a book on the shelf is very popular. For one thing, history can be reported as it happens every day. Sawyer said at a meeting in the Little Rock library last week that there would be a new story on the front page every day and that the other stories could be updated quickly. Also, something she said that I liked, was that a book or maybe two of the encyclopedia would be printed and for sale by 2010.

Do people really want an encyclopedia of Arkansas on the Internet? Well, on the second day of the encyclopedia, 130,272 visitors opened the encyclopedia on their computers. Even in the Netherlands, 37 visitors took a look.

Journalists shouldn’t write about things they are involved in, but I am dumping this ethic because I am a member of a committee of 25 people called the Encyclopedia Advisory Board that meets about twice a year to listen to the editors and give them a little advice to which they usually give little or no attention. I have to say that until I turned on my computer last week I still wasn’t completely convinced that an Internet encyclopedia was needed. But after listening to Dillard and Sawyer and spending a couple of hours reading some of the items last week, I decided that an Internet encyclopedia is really a good idea.

Today most young people like the Internet better than a book, or, for that matter, a newspaper. On the Internet, new developments can be reported immediately, and errors can be corrected within 24 hours. Already the staff has demonstrated these things about Arkansas stories.

One of the things that I really liked was that the staff has refused to print “wikipedia,” the voluntary Internet encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute, whether they are historians, academicians, writers, journalists and eye-witnesses or not. Some of the states’ Internet encyclopedias print a lot of tales about their states that have never been proven.

I spent an hour or more looking at the Arkansas Internet encyclopedia on its second day. The pictures were attractive and the writing was well done. Sure, there were some of the state’s doers, devils and dramas that weren’t reported. But now there are only 700 entries, and editor Sawyer promises that by 2010 there will be 3,500.

I recommend a look at

Mayors and unelected city administrators like to whisper their ideas in their aldermen’s ears or call them on the telephone so they get their opinions before citizens can hear about it from the press. Then later at a regular meeting, with reporters standing by, a quick vote is taken with little or no comment so the mayor or city administrator has pulled off something that the public didn’t even know about.

That’s exactly what happened in Fort Smith in 2004. A citizen, David Harris, who didn’t like the city administrator’s secrecy, filed suit against the city under the Arkansas Freedom of Information law (FOI), and the court agreed with the citizen, ruling that the city’s secrecy was wrong.

The Arkansas FOI law says that if a citizen files and wins a case, the loser has to pay the winner’s bills. But last week the Arkansas Supreme Court ignored that part of the law and voted 5 to 2 that the winner had to pay his $10,000 legal bill. The two judges who voted against this ridiculous decision, Tom Glaze and Annabelle Clinton Imber, understand that the decision means that no ordinary citizen will take a chance to challenge secrecy in government.

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