Michigan Transportation History (and its subsidiary site dedicated to more general Michigan History) has been a side project of R.D.Jones since 2006. The aim here is not to reproduce yet another online encyclopedia just for the sake of another online encyclopedia (although learning does happen in the research and writing of such articles). As far as the encyclopedic aspect of this project goes, it attempts to (1) offer new information often not found in established encyclopedia entries, that is, to extend information; and (2) to review and assess the research resources available for those topics, that is, to criticize information. Thus, it should be understood that few articles on Michigan Transportation History are or ever will be complete histories of their topics, but it is more than a place for making my research notes coherent and serving as a spring-board for further research. The metapurpose (the "why") seeks to leverage the technology for further historical analysis.
The power of hyper-linking people, places, concepts, and so on, allows researchers to see connections and relationships between them that are often missed when noses are pressed up against the documents. Like data visualization, no one really cares about the encyclopedic minutia of average people (albeit with somewhat above average ambition) living 120 to 200 years ago (more or less)—and certainly there is nothing special about (yet) another encyclopedia. However, this exercise is worth the effort because through recovering the connections between people—their relationships—and the patterns of their behaviors that are obscured by opaque hagiography and self-aggrandizement leads us to broader patterns about, in this case, Michigan, or broader yet, the U.S. or global economic, social, political, and cultural changes. The connections are important. Thus starting with some minor character—a seedsman, a hotel keeper, a trading post operator, or an embezzler—and illuminating their relationships has the potential to bring to light a significant and meaningful historical pattern or trend, or lead us to a new and unique explanation of historical facts. So, no one is unimportant.1
I've been playing with biography in this way for over twenty years. My dissertation (2001) was in many ways a similar exercise—a retelling dozens of biographies in an effort to establish the relationships and to uncover the common motivator of those people's behavior. My enthusiasm for Wikipedia (which I discovered in 2004) was similar; my involvement in other social knowledge projects was likewise inspired. This wiki was started in 2006 in response to some of my research projects on WP getting axed because they were too miniscule or insignificant—"not notable" in WP-ese. So I needed a place where I could collect my stories.
The power of the technology of linking the elements of a story is that relationships become immediately visible and searchable. Most repositories (such as the Internet Archive, HathiTrust Digital Library, University Digital Content & Collections, or even your indexed hard drive) are searchable, but they won't tell you or show you that this person you just searched for is related to that person you searched for last week.
1. ⇑ Thanks to Grant Sanderson of 3blue1brown for inspiring this "rant" on how random and perhaps minor things really are important to study. (and, again, ads.) ⇑
Some thoughts about this technology. R.D.Jones has used MediaWiki extensively on various sites (including WP, CZ, STSwiki, EDiT, and countless others); but the back end of MediaWiki runs out of a mysql (or other sql) database about which Jones is unfamiliar. MichTransHist runs on PmWiki for various reasons: PmWiki uses flat files to store data (so are text searchable on my drive with all my other docs), is very customizable, and has a friendly and helpful community of developers and supporters ready to help out. Currently running version pmwiki-2.3.21.
MichTransHist collects no information about users of this site; it has no analytic program or app running.
Questions or comments about the Michigan Transportation History site may be directed to
R. D. Jones at ArDiJe@ymail.com. Please mention what you've been reading. Thanks!