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Seattle’s Public Safety Building, a.k.a. Yesler Building, in 1920. (Seattle Municipal Archives Photo)

Wikipedia was a groundbreaking initiative when it went live on Jan. 15, 2001.

But a Seattle-based project called HistoryLink actually launched its online encyclopedia — filled with historical facts and stories about Washington state — exactly two years before Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger hit the scene with Wikipedia.

“It was one of the very first true online encyclopedias, which was truly innovative for its time,” said Allyson Brooks, director of Washington state’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. It was a digital Encyclopedia Britannica, and “something people hadn’t really thought about constructing.”

HistoryLink differs from Wikipedia in significant ways. The former’s scope is limited to Washington state and its content is written and edited by paid staff and contractors, while Wikipedia’s entries are crowdsourced. Wikipedia now counts 40 million articles in 301 different languages. HistoryLink’s online database is just shy of 8,000 articles.

But the two organizations share common roots: Both are nonprofits — created at the dawn of the digital age — with the goal of making reliable information accessible to all for free.

HistoryLink is sharing some of its most popular entries over the past 20 years. Find them on Instagram and Facebook.

In the late 1990s, as the plan for HistoryLink was starting to gel, online content was limited and website access was slow. To create their digital encyclopedia, its founders worked with software engineers to build their own search engine. They used postage-stamp sized images for quicker loading and avoided big audio and video files altogether. They geotagged information, anticipating the eventual usefulness of that data.

“We saw into the future — what eventually would happen — and we planned for that,” said Marie McCaffrey, HistoryLink’s executive director. She is also the organization’s co-founder, along with her deceased husband, historian Walt Crowley, and Paul Dorpat, a historian and photographer.

Some of the HistoryLink team. From left to right, Executive Director Marie McCaffrey, Petyr Beck, David Koch, Jennifer Ott and Antonia Kelleher at Pike Place Market in June 2018. (HistoryLink / Jean Sherrard Photo)

HistoryLink celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Over that time, the site has grown from 300 entries to some 7,500 in-depth articles with new stories posted weekly, making HistoryLink arguably the most comprehensive state encyclopedia in the U.S.

The site includes articles covering the glaciers that formed Washington, a small pox outbreak that killed Northwest Native Americans and the Seattle Storm’s third win of the WNBA championship last year. Its loyal following includes students, teachers, academics, authors and filmmakers and anyone who is curious about Seattle and Washington’s history.

And in a city growing and changing as quickly as the greater Seattle area — see this week’s closing of its 66-year-old waterfront viaduct as the most recent transformation — many believe access to historical information is more important than ever. Knowing where we’ve been can guide decisions about the future. It helps us decide which landmarks are worthy of preservation.

“If you read through HistoryLink, you can read thousands of stories about Seattle. But those stories knit together to create Seattle, and those stories are who we are,” McCaffrey said.

“Seattle is kind of full of itself and thinks it’s extraordinary, and for good reason,” she said. The city has spawned businesses that have reshaped the world: Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon among them. “There is this sense here of invention, that a thing can just spring from us. That is in the character of the place.”

A sketch of the design for the HistoryLink site by co-founder Walt Crowley in December 1997. (HistoryLink)

Early days

The bubble was still expanding during the time that HistoryLink got its start. Project outsiders couldn’t believe that the team was creating a nonprofit for the job, McCaffrey said, instead of chasing some of the millions being raked in by many of Seattle’s startups.

One of HistoryLink’s first funders was longtime local philanthropist Patsy Bullitt Collins. According to the Seattle Times, Collins supported the cause despite telling the founders “I’ve never even seen a website, but I love history and I respect you guys.” She gave $20,000 to the group, allowing them to build a demonstration website and raise an additional $135,000 from local governments, private donors and foundations.

The WTO protests in Seattle on Nov. 30, 1999 at 4th Avenue and Pike Street as captured by HistoryLink’s video camera. (HistoryLink Photo)

HistoryLink, which was initially focused on Seattle and surrounding King County, slowly began attracting readers over its first few months. Then Seattle hosted the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in November 1999. The nonprofit’s staff had the amazing good sense to install a video camera that captured the protests and riots that erupted just below HistoryLink’s downtown office.

“[W]hen news cameras were pushed back beyond the line of sight, HistoryLink’s cam was the only live feed coming out of downtown,” reads their website. “The world watched history happen through the eyes of”

Website traffic spiked to 1.5 million page views during the week of WTO. The site operated from servers owned by the Speakeasy, a cybercafe and ISP. The sudden traffic surge overwhelmed their technology and Speakeasy had to move HistoryLink to its own server to stop shutdowns. After the event, the nonprofit went out to raise more money and in 2003 expanded its coverage to all of Washington.

Working persons’ encyclopedia

The Seattle Public Library Foundation was another early supporter.

Jodee Fenton, manager of Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections Services, said that part of what makes the site special is the personality and Northwest ties of its founders. Dorpat and Crowley were journalists and teamed up in the late 1960s to publish an underground newspaper call the Helix. Crowley participated in local politics and Dorpat still regularly writes history articles for the Seattle Times. McCaffrey is a Seattle native and graphic designer.

The effort was “grassroots” and created by people who understood and were connected to the city, as opposed to coming from a historical society or academic institution, Fenton said. HistoryLink has paid attention to covering labor issues and contributions of racial and ethnic minorities.

“HistoryLink has always been a kind of working persons’ encyclopedia,” she said.

Those connections remain important today. HistoryLink, which gets about 5,000 visitors a day, continues building teams of researchers in cities around the state to retain those personal relationships.

While its focus is on the past, the site keeps an eye toward the future.

Its most recent redesign launched two years ago. About one-third of its 30,000 images have been replaced by larger versions. The process can be laborious given the many sources of the photos, but the team is putting a more efficient system in place and hopes to complete the image upgrade the rest by year’s end. In early days, the staff didn’t include links in their entries, in part over concerns about connections going dead, but they are now working on adding them.

Among the site’s features are 32 history-enhanced walking tours, including a trip around Seattle’s Olmstead designed parks and sites significant to the Tulalip Tribes. Staff are trying to do more to make use of the original geotagging of the entries. One challenge is that certain locations have loads of entries that would all plot to same spot on a map, rendering the feature useless. But the team is hoping to create a mobile app to help people call up information when physically visiting historic areas.

HistoryLink partners with numerous museums, history organizations and academic institutions for different projects. Brooks, the state preservationist, would like for the site to become a regional clearinghouse, linking to original sources housed by lots of organizations.

HistoryLink has “done a tremendous service to the people of Washington by creating this encyclopedia,” Brooks said.

“People want to know where they came from and where they’ve been before. It connects you to the place,” she said. “Otherwise you’re just living anywhere.”

Editor's Note: Funding for GeekWire's Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.
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