Department of Corrections: The EOA at 18

So the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas is now eighteen years old, having celebrated its birthday last week. I am told by my associate editor that I should write a celebratory piece, but all I can remember from my eighteenth birthday is registering for Selective Service at the post office and then going to the Craighead County Courthouse to register to vote. There was little in the way of celebration that day.

The older one gets, the more complicated things become, and you start to learn that the some of the stories with which you were raised were either just outright lies or, at best, alloys of truth and folklore, truth and patriotism, truth and the ever-present desire to think ourselves just a little bit better than we are. Go out into the world, young one, all starry-eyed and pure of heart, and you soon find yourself subject to correction—endless correction. Growing isn’t just a process of learning, but it is also the process of unlearning much of what you held true.

yellow pamphlet with "To the Hot Springs of Arkansas, America's Baden-Baden"I have on my desk right now a copy of Dee Brown’s The American Spa: Hot Springs, Arkansas, a 1982 book he was commissioned to write by the Arkansas Bank and Trust of Hot Springs on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Hot Springs Reservation (now the Hot Springs National Park). Now, Dee Brown was a careful researcher and writer, but even he could not avoid the legends that had become inscribed upon the collective consciousness of Spa City types, retelling the stories of how Native American tribes considered the hot springs a neutral ground where all could meet in peace, and how the springs were one of the most noteworthy stops by the expedition of Hernando de Soto.

But now we know that the story about the “valley of peace” was concocted by railroad companies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of giving Hot Springs a bit of allure, some exotic majesty. And we also know that the actual route of the De Soto Expedition went nowhere near Hot Springs; this was a bit of lore foisted upon the historical record by John R. Fordyce, who hoped that the town’s purported association with the Spanish expedition might serve as a lure for tourism. It doesn’t speak ill of Dee Brown that he reproduced such stories—after all, they were part and parcel of the dominant metanarrative of the time. But it’s also our responsibility as conscientious historians to correct the record when new research demands it.

And that brings us to one of the most tedious, and yet most crucial, responsibilities I have as editor of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas—fielding corrections. Because people send us corrections all the time. Some of these don’t pan out. Some of these concern minor issues, such as the spelling of a person’s or place’s name. But some of these end up requiring some major revision to some of our entries, which might lead a reader to wonder: just how did we get things so wrong?

When the EOA went live eighteen years ago, the situation we faced was actually not all that different from the environment in which Dee Brown composed The American Spa. Although the state history community had continued its trend toward increasing professionalization, many of the sources upon which we relied for basic information, especially for subject matters such as small towns, were older sources, such as locally produced county histories or the books produced by the Goodspeed Publishing Company in the late 1800s. Such works collected oral histories, often ignored or sidelined the state’s Black community, and were often produced more as promotional materials than as critical histories. Consequently, as valuable as such sources are, there was a lot that they simply overlooked or actually got wrong.

Since the EOA first went live in 2006, there has emerged an abundance of online resources that make fact-checking so much easier, not just for us, but also for the general public. I’ve written before about the growth of digitized newspapers, but also the ever-expanding databases of material at offer a wealth of material, as do public domain books at either Internet Archive or Google Books. Suddenly, there are a lot of opportunities not just for us to fact-check material, but for readers to fact-check us. Every day, I open my email to find one or more corrections sent our way.

concrete steps leading down to rocks and water
Spring in Ravenden Springs (Randolph County); 2009.

For example, I recently corresponded with someone about the number of springs in the town of Ravenden Springs. Our entry had said there were five springs in the community, with this information coming from a 2008 retrospective in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but our correspondent insisted that earlier accounts of the town noted only three springs in the area. This person was able, thanks to these digitized newspapers, to send us a clipping from 1887 that, indeed, mentioned only three springs. However, our staff historian also did a little digging and found some early-twentieth-century articles that listed only two springs in Ravenden Springs. So I tweaked the relevant paragraph in the entry to reflect these discrepancies.

I’ll be honest—it’s genuinely annoying to be sidetracked from one’s expected workday into a survey of old newspaper articles trying to track down the exact number of springs flowing through a town that, at the last census, recorded 119 people. At the same time, though, we never truly know what piece of information people will need down the line, and we have to be committed to accuracy if we want to serve as a resource for the people of Arkansas and also represent Arkansas truthfully to the wider world. For someone, the number of springs in Ravenden Springs might be more than just an interesting bit of trivia.

Annoying, and yet absolutely vital. A bit like registering to vote and registering for the draft. There might have been cake, and there might have been some kind of party, although my family was never big on either, but what I remember from my eighteenth birthday is mostly a sense of emerging responsibility for this community that is bigger than any of us individually. As we turn eighteen here at the EOA, we indeed celebrate, but we also feel that sense of responsibility more and more.

By Guy Lancaster, editor of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


Click here to learn ways to get involved with the EOA, and click on the Donate tab on the EOA homepage to make a donation in honor of eighteen great years!



Support the Encyclopedia of Arkansas with a one-time donation or a recurring monthly gift.



Get emails from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas to be notified about the latest blog posts, newest entries, and more.