The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey was originally published in four hardback volumes between 1942 and 1958, followed by one-volume updates in 1977 and 1981. The new edition, scheduled for completion in time for the U-M bicentennial in 2017, will only be available online. Like its predecessors, it will include articles on all 150 or so colleges, departments, libraries, collections, and museums.

According to the project’s editorial guidelines, the goal is to produce a real history: “The Encyclopedic Survey seeks to record the University of Michigan’s many accomplishments,” according to those guidelines, “but it is not a ‘brag book,’ a public-relations document, or a fundraising tool. Writers should make no effort to avoid descriptions of conflict, dissension, and difficulty.”

There’s still a long way to go, but according to two of those editors, the message has gotten through so far.

“It needs to go beyond a puff piece, and it has,” says Terry McDonald, director of the Bentley Library, which has become the project’s informal home. “This is history that is far from being either predictable or potted or shorn of any controversy, which is sort of what you would expect to read from a PR-type thing.”

“From the beginning, we considered that this resource is to be part and parcel of an institution devoted to knowledge and truth,” says consulting editor Jim Tobin. “Nobody wants to be quite that corny these days, but that’s what I believe a great university is. If a great university is going to write its own history, it should keep its eyes open to everything that has happened in the university’s past: the good moments, the bad moments, the conflicts, the missteps … It’s supposed to be an honest history of a great institution.”

Both McDonald and Tobin are professional historians. Tobin, a professor of media, journalism, and film at Miami University, has a PhD in history from U-M and is the author of several acclaimed books of twentieth-century American history. McDonald, a history professor, was dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts for a decade before succeeding Francis Blouin, also a history professor and the project’s instigator and leading advocate, as the head of the Bentley in 2013.

McDonald says he’s learned things about LS&A units from reading their completed articles that he hadn’t known himself when he was dean.

“At a time when German departments around the country are shrinking, ours is thriving, probably one of the largest such departments in the country right now,” McDonald says. “Reading about the steps they took to survive the downturn in the discipline was a really interesting story. And our Department of American Culture discovered evidence that it was the first program in that area in the country. Nobody knew that.”

More important than his own enlightenment, he adds, is that “most places are already finding this to be useful and in some cases surprising. Many things have happened since the [last update in the] ’70s that have affected the fate and the shape of U-M units, and the idea was to encourage them to take some stock. Units are discovering interesting things about themselves, which is exactly what we hoped would happen.”

The writers include former department chairs, retired faculty, freelancers, and communications staffers. “They’ve been pretty candid,” says Tobin. “Some are quite frank about conflicts within departments, but we’re not going out of our way to air dirty laundry; that’s not the point of the thing.

“It’s an institution that everyone believes in and cares about, so these are written with the kind of loyalty and affection you’d expect–but not uncritically.”