Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

Scalar and Scholarly Communication

Black Quotidian is a born-digital project that uses Scalar, an open-access, multimedia web-authoring platform that enables authors to assemble images, videos, maps, and other media and to juxtapose these resources with text.  I designed Black Quotidian to explore the capabilities of Scalar in two ways.  First, as a media historian, I have long appreciated Scalar’s multimedia capabilities.  Visitors to Black Quotidian can read news coverage from the black press while also watching or listening to contemporaneous musical performances, athletic events, or political speeches that are difficult to describe textually. Using Scalar, Black Quotidian conveys the sounds, sights, and movements that are so important to African-American history.  The April 15, 1939 post, for example, features coverage of Marian Anderson’s landmark performance at the Lincoln Memorial from the Chicago Defender and Norfolk Journal and Guide, alongside newsreel film footage of Anderson’s concert from the UCLA Film & Television Archive's “Hearst Metrotone News Collection.” 

Second, Scalar offered new possibilities for structuring my research and writing, both in terms of the Black Quotidian’s development and its scope.  This project developed gradually, without a predetermined plan for what each of the daily posts would cover.  In some cases, I searched for historical articles related to specific people or events (e.g., the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday or the Little Rock School Integration Crisis).  On other dates, I browsed a random newspaper to find an interesting article (e.g., what did people read about in the Los Angeles Sentinel on May 22, 1947?).  After each daily post was finished, I would share the link via Twitter.  In this way, parts of the project were complete and were being read online, while the larger project was still under construction.  What started as a handful of pages and media objects, soon grow to the hundreds, and eventually expanded to over one thousand newspaper articles, images and videos.  Through this accumulation of these daily posts, the project presents visitors with an overwhelming array of material in the hope that this feeling of too-muchness conveys a sense of the breadth of African-American history.  Readers do not need to visit every page, read every article, or click every link to learn more about black newspapers and how these newspapers recorded everyday life in black communities.

Through these multimedia capabilities and possibilities for structuring, Scalar enabled me to communicate my research differently.  Black Quotidian could only exist digitally and was intentionally designed to be different from a monograph or journal article.  As Lara Putnam noted in the April 2015 Perspectives on History, “handcuffing scholarly dissemination” to the academic monograph “imposes opportunity costs” in terms of “collective knowledge,” “individual careers,” and “historians’ place in public debate.”  I have come to view scholarly communication, via Twitter and elsewhere, as an everyday process rather than something that happens intermittently, at conferences or through articles and books.  Scalar’s open-access format makes it possible to share primary sources about events and people—such as basketball and tennis star Ora WashingtonGhana’s independence, Cleveland businessman and hairdresser Wilbert Black, and civil rights activist Victoria DeLee—with popular audiences in ways that simply are not possible in traditional print forms.

Digital history represents a new way to continue traditions that have long been important for scholars of African American history and culture, as well as scholars working on LGBTQ, Native American, Latina/o, and Asian American history. These traditions include being creative and resourceful in terms of methodology, and communicating knowledge beyond the academy. Carter G. Woodson’s vision of scholarly communication, promoting history one mail-order pamphlet at a time, remains valuable in our digital age and Black Quotidian aims to build on these earlier efforts.

The next path examines how African-American newspapers popularized black history and encouraged readers to see black history as something that is made, and should be studied, everyday.

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