After World War II, a young Bill Powell returned to North Carolina to work as a researcher with the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh. Spending his days answering reference questions from the general public, Powell realized the state needed a definitive guide—a handbook explaining all things North Carolina. This idea continued to take shape over Powell's career as a librarian, historian, and teacher as he published several books concerning the history and culture of North Carolina (including the six-volume Dictionary of North Carolina Biography and The North Carolina Gazetteer, both from the University of North Carolina Press). Through this work, Powell became known as an expert and authority on all things concerning North Carolina.
This project began in earnest in the late 1980s when completion of the volume Dictionary of North Carolina Biography was in sight. Powell formulated a preliminary list of topics and a process for identifying and soliciting contributors, along with guidelines for editing a work that would have not just a few contributors, but rather hundreds—each shedding light on a topic in his or her respective area of expertise.
In April 1991, Powell submitted his first entry list to the University of North Carolina Press for review. Encouraged by his editor, David Perry, and others at the Press, Powell reviewed and revised the list with help from scholars, local historians, and other experts around the state and nation. By the end of 1998, 2,300 of the originally proposed 3,000 entries were assigned, and 1,200 were completed. In 1998, Jay Mazzocchi joined the Encyclopedia team as assistant editor. In 2001, he became associate editor, working closely with Powell on the day-to-day management of the project. At the Press, editor for special projects Mark Simpson-Vos assumed responsibility as liaison to the Encyclopedia team.
In 1998, the University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill became a publishing partner of the Encyclopedia by providing substantial funding and housing the project’s editorial office.
By the end of 2001, the shape of the final manuscript came into clear view, with a master list of some 2,100 entries to be published in a richly illustrated single volume. Senior consulting editor William Price joined the project as a key adviser to help guide completion and provide developmental editing of the manuscript, which then comprised some 14 million characters.
In 2003, Jerry Cotten, who was the photographic services librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill, joined the team as illustrations editor. His familiarity with the North Carolina Collection’s inventory of images was a great asset to the Encyclopedia project.
By the spring of 2004, timetables were formulated that included peer review, final revisions, copyediting, and production, all with the goal of publication by the fall of 2006.
What started as an idea by one enthused historian has culminated in a work that has touched the lives of countless individuals who share one common trait—a love and excitement for the history, culture, and events that shape North Carolina into one of the most diverse and fascinating states in the country.