The CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas: Stealing Our Way through History

Truth be told, we are all thieves.

In fact, thievery is the means by which cultures develop and change. William Shakespeare, credited with being one of the most original voices in English-language literature, famously stole the plots—and sometimes large stretches of dialogue—from numerous other sources. In fact, he wrote only two plays that scholars recognize as largely original, at least in terms of not being pulled directly from an already extant source: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. However, his genius lay in how he assembled disparate inspirations into works of art that still speak to us more than 400 years later.

The French cultural theorist René Girard famously asserted that the most fundamental human attribute is mimicry, imitation. Think how movies and television shows are often pitched to producers: “It’s like _____ meets _____.” Star Trek, for example, was famously pitched as “a wagon train to the stars” and drew as heavily from the genre of western as it did from science fiction. And, in turn, scores of creators then drew upon the inspiration Star Trek provided for their own television series, movies, novels, and more.

Indeed, in 2014, the filmmaker Kirby Ferguson released a four-part web series titled “Everything Is a Remix” in which he demonstrated how much of our popular culture, from movies to music, has been the result of imitation, of someone taking bits and pieces from other sources and blending them in a unique manner. But it’s not just popular culture that is the result of remixing—it’s all culture, as the example of Shakespeare well demonstrates.

And this goes for our humble CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas, too. Those who originated the project drew heavily from the examples of the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, and HistoryLink (the Washington state encyclopedia). And as the project has developed over the last fourteen years, staff members have regularly (and shamelessly) stolen good ideas they encounter in other reference works, both print and online. As new states develop their own online encyclopedias, we take a gander to see what ideas we might borrow. This has kept the Encyclopedia of Arkansas growing in ways that could not have been anticipated early on.

We are all thieves.

But how do we stay fresh? By thieving from many sources. Think of the novelist whose later work often seems a repetition of those earlier, brilliant books. Think of the television show that just dries up creatively. This happens in many cases because the novelist or the showrunners are not stealing broadly enough. George Lucas famously borrowed from old film serials, westerns, and Japanese samurai movies for his first Star Wars trilogy. However, those who later picked up the mantle for the more recent trilogy were borrowing primarily from the back catalogue of Star Wars. They weren’t bringing together new combinations of theme and story and tone—they were simply determined to make a Star Wars movie, and the result, by the estimation of most critics and many fans, was less than impressive and certainly lacked the magic of the original.

Reference works, by definition, are not supposed to be fresh. After all, they are neither primary nor secondary sources but, rather, tertiary, a distillation of the ideas and information presented in various articles and books. However, at the same time, reference works are often the first sources people encounter in their search for information, and online reference works must be able to stay current with the expectations of their audience. In addition, as we have discovered, online encyclopedias do have the ability to break new ground. Sometimes, the sum total of information available on a particular subject is just enough to produce an encyclopedia entry, so why wait for the book or journal article that will never arrive? And because the Encyclopedia of Arkansas offers not just information on, but also representation for, specific communities, we have established an audience that eagerly follows our latest entries.

But we risk running stale if our efforts are exclusively completist. Yes, we want all the small towns and defunct communities, all the state representatives and constitutional officers, all the Civil War skirmishes, all the properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, all the lynchings and race riots, all the Wildlife Management Areas, all the university and college presidents—and so much more. We want to offer everything we can about the state of Arkansas. But at the same time, we want to expand conceptually, beyond just “more of the same.”

Doing that, however, will depend upon doing some new rounds of abject thievery. So where are the good storehouses of ideas right now? Have you encountered any reference works, print or online, that have surprised you by how information is presented, and do you ever wish that there was an equivalent in Arkansas?

Salman Rushdie once said that a good book not only changes what you think but changes what you can think. It may be an ambitious goal for a humble reference work on the history of a small state, but ambition has served as well enough so far. But to meet our ambitions, we need to keep stealing all the good ideas out there. And we are always happy to be pointed in the direction of any rich and well-equipped mansion of concepts. Thieving is what we do best.

By Guy Lancaster, editor of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas

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