Published December 2, 2013

A collaboration between VFH and Google allows the public to tour Virginia historic sites without leaving home

By Brendan Wolfe

At Poplar Forest in Lynchburg, Raleigh Seamster (right), program manager of Google Earth Outreach, trains Encyclopedia Virginia staff members Brendan Wolfe (left) and Matthew Gibson to capture images for use on Google Street View. Photo courtesy of Peter Hedlund.

Driving south through the early morning fog on Route 29, Matthew Gibson yawns and takes a sip of coffee. “They want us in and out before the first tour starts,” he says, referring to the staff of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, the former president’s retreat near present-day Lynchburg. Gibson is the editor of Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), an online project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in partnership with the Library of Virginia. As part of a collaboration with Google, the EV team will train on the company’s Street View technology, learning how to capture the interiors of historic sites in Virginia.

“The encyclopedia launched at the end of 2008,” Gibson says, “and the idea was to provide an authoritative resource on the history and culture of the Commonwealth.” It has gone a long way toward accomplishing that in the years since, publishing more than 840 entries and nearly 400 primary documents. Topics covered so far include Virginia Indians, colonial Virginia, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, twentieth-century history, and literature.

Encyclopedia Virginia is a work-in-progress, but if you visit the site you’ll find entries on everyone from John Smith and Pocahontas to Robert E. Lee and Elizabeth Van Lew, from the fugitive slave Henry Box Brown to the civil rights attorney Oliver W. Hill. You’ll find broad subject entries, such as ones on the Civil War in Virginia and Colonial Virginia, and entries that really drill down. For instance, you can read about Confederate morale, the experience of women during the Civil War, and so-called black Confederates. You’ll also find fascinating entries on the Starving Time (did hungry English colonists really feast on one another?) and gift-exchange practices among Virginia Indians (did ignorance on the subject forever end Spain’s claim on Virginia?).

According to Gibson, the entries are written and vetted by scholars and fact-checked in order to ensure they are accurate and reflect up-to-date scholarship. “What’s really important, though, is that they’re accessible,” Gibson says. “These entries are not about historians talking to each other. They’re about historians talking to the public. We want this resource to be useful to as broad an audience as possible.”

Many of EV‘s entries are complemented by primary documents. The encyclopedia’s entry on Sally Hemings, for example, contains links to nearly all of the critical documents—letters, newspaper reports, memoirs, wills, even a DNA report—related to her life and her alleged relationship with Thomas Jefferson. “This is what history should be,” Gibson says. “Looking at the sources for yourself and seeing where the facts actually come from.”

And, of course, the encyclopedia features thousands of media objects. In addition to audio clips and newsreel footage, there are high-resolution images like the one of a piece of Civil War–era hardtack. This is the rock-hard, digestively unfriendly biscuit that Union and Confederate soldiers carried with them to eat, and readers who zoom in on this particular image will find a 200-year-old bug curled up in the top right-hand corner. “Oh man, teachers love this one!” Gibson says. “I mean, they love the documents, too, and all that stuff. But there’s nothing like a bug to get your kids into what you’re doing.”

The trip to Poplar Forest is the result of a number of initiatives at the encyclopedia all coming together at once. The project’s programmer, Peter Hedlund, explains that one of EV‘s top priorities has always been to stay on the cutting edge of Internet technology. “We want to give users a really cool experience when using our site,” he says. “It’s more than just having fact-checked content. It’s about how that content can be presented in dynamic and innovative ways.” He points to the way in which the dates and locations mentioned in an entry can, with the click of a link, be plotted on a map. In 2011, Hedlund traveled to Google’s campus in Mountain View, California, to learn more about mapping, and from there a collaboration began.

“They were starting to use their Street View feature to photograph indoors,” Hedlund says. “People can take virtual tours of historic sites, and we thought that would be perfect for the encyclopedia.”

“We were already doing a section of content on Thomas Jefferson,” Gibson interjects, “and we had a great entry on Poplar Forest. Once we get these photographs today, we can embed them in the entry so that our readers can take a virtual tour of the home. I mean, how cool is that?”

“We’re learning the equipment today,” Hedlund says, “but once we’ve got the hang of it, we’ll be able to go out and find those lesser-known sites, the ones where Google hasn’t already collected Street View images.”

Gibson and Hedlund emphasize that initiatives like these are what set Encyclopedia Virginia apart. “We really try to bring the whole commonwealth together into this resource,” Gibson says, taking another gulp of coffee. “I just wish we didn’t have to get up so early to do it!”

About the Author

Brendan Wolfe is managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. The project website is encyclopediavirginia.org. The virtual tour of Poplar Forest is now available on Google Maps and Encyclopedia Virginia

Our work brings people together and honors our shared humanity.