If you don't know much about Minnesota history, here's a chance to upgrade your ignorance -- and add your own comments -- without leaving your La-Z-Boy.
The Minnesota Historical Society has launched a prototype of the first online state encyclopedia, dubbed MNopedia, and it's as easily surfable as it is informative. In a matter of minutes, you can bone up on John Beargrease of sled-dog race fame, the harrowing St. Anthony Falls tunnel collapse of 1869, and a wonderfully concise 3,000-year architectural overview by Larry Millett, beginning with Indian burial mounds and ending with suburban big-box stores.
Did you know that way back in the late 1800s, Fredrick McGhee, the state's first African-American attorney, was a prominent St. Paul trial lawyer and that milling titan Charles Pillsbury started one of the nation's first profit-sharing plans for company employees?
Well, now you do.
MNopedia entries may be scholarly, but they aren't dry. In an essay by historian and professor Annette Atkins on the development of Minneapolis and St. Paul as both twins and rivals, the author muses, "Wouldn't every citizen's life be improved if, for example, the cities adopted the same snow emergency rules?"
The launch was paid for with $215,000 from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund segment of the state's Legacy Amendment, and the grant has been renewed for 2012. As a "beta" site, it's currently offering limited entries from Minnesota's industrial era, and will continue building expert-provided content and photo archives, said editor Erica Hartmann.
The Historical Society had long planned to try to produce a print encyclopedia, but the online alternative proved much less costly, easier to update and more interactive, she said. Drawing inspiration from similar sites created by the states of Virginia and Georgia, as well as Sydney, Australia, and the country of New Zealand, the site's developers consulted many local historians and educators on topic categories and content, which will adhere to state educational standards for use in classrooms.
Asked whether Wikipedia doesn't already cover much of this territory, Hartmann stressed that while Wikipedia is "a valuable resource already out there," MNopedia's writers must have proven expertise, and that fact-checking will be more scrupulous on the state site.
"We name the authors and our content is vetted," she said. Take note, students about to start school and get assigned papers.
Another difference: Because MNopedia's scope is more limited than Wikipedia's, "we'll be more able to find the needles in the haystacks that a Wiki editor wouldn't necessarily know about."
These standards don't mean citizens are prohibited from contributing to the site. The Historical Society wants public input on content to be added and offers the chance to comment after every entry.
"Minnesotans are paying for it, so they should help shape what's in it," she said.
To weigh in, go to www.mnopedia.org and click "Discuss."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046