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James R. Grossman and Ann Durkin Keating

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Backdrop: Tamara Backdrops

“We’re regional residents, and we’re very connected to each other.”
–Ann Durkin Keating
Chicago A-Z
James R. Grossman and Ann Durkin Keating
The Encyclopedia Of Chicago

After more than ten years, and with 635 contributors and a million words, James R. Grossman and Ann Durkin Keating have blown the dust from urban history with The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Not only did these editors produce an innovative work of academic history but the publication is a hit, selling some 45,000 copies in its first year. “It is far more successful than I ever would have predicted,” says Keating, 48, a lifelong Chicagoan who is a professor of history at North Central College in Naperville. “Urban historians are seldom out in the light of day in this way.” Backed by a partnership between the Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society, the project editors saw the book as an opportunity to make changes to the very idea of a city encyclopedia—most often seen as the final authoritative reference to an urban area.

With that in mind, both Keating and Grossman, 53, also a historian (as well as a vice president for research and education at the Newberry Library), got creative while outlining the book.

“We knew we were not going to get serious money [to fund the project] unless we could contribute to the scholarship of American urban history and write something the public could consume,” says Grossman.

Their first step was to engage the assistance of the UCLA historian Janice L. Reiff, who emerged as the book’s third editor. An early proponent of electronic media, Reiff suggested organizing the book as a series of personal portals, such as ethnic groups or neighborhoods, through which readers would then be led to the larger idea of urban development and ultimately the metropolitan history of the entire region. An electronic version of the book was also part of the initial conception.

“The range of the region is something that is on my mind a lot,” says Keating, who met Grossman while she was a graduate student and he was a junior faculty member at the University of Chicago. “It’s a rare person that stays in one place; we cross boundaries. We’re regional residents, and we’re very connected to each other.”

Clearly, Mayor Daley considers The Encyclopedia of Chicago to be quite a gift. Recently, he presented a copy to the British consul, who in turn sent it on to Queen Elizabeth.
–Deborah Wilk

 

 

 

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