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When I was doing my dissertation research, which led to The Nicest Kids in Town, I was fascinated by the tremendous variety of news published in the Philadelphia Tribune. As I searched for articles related to civil rights, music, television, and education, I also came across stories about high school sports, police brutality, and beauty pageants; advertisements for Pepsi and living room furniture; and sensationalized crime stories. By the time I was doing research for my second book, Why Busing Failed, the Philadelphia Tribune and several other blacks newspapers were digitized. While this allowed me to find and analyze over 10,000 newspaper articles on school desegregation, I missed the experience of working with microfilm reels and unexpectedly stumbling across interesting stories. I appreciate that digitization makes it possible to search millions of articles with high levels of precision, but with Black Quotidian I wanted to reintroduce the elements of exploration, randomness, and surprise that I associate with my first encounters with black newspapers.
As more historical sources are digitized and made available via databases and the web, it is increasingly important for researchers and teachers to reflect on what different search methods can obscure and reveal. As Vincent Brown argues, “when we shift our emphasis from historical recovery to rigorous and responsible creativity, we recognize that archives are not just the records bequeathed to us by the past; archives also consist of the tools we use to explore it, the vision that allows us to read its signs, and the design decisions that communicate our sense of history’s possibilities.”15 Searching for the keyword “civil rights” in the ProQuest Historical Black Newspaper database, for example, returns over 240,000 results from the 1890s to the 2000s. These results pose several questions: Where does one begin? Why are some articles ranked above others, and how does the algorithm determine relevance? What possible connections exist among these results? For my students, they find the quantity of results overwhelming, and most end up focusing only on the first page of search results.
Black Quotidian offers a different model for querying these types of databases. Rather than starting with keywords, most of my searches for this project began by selecting a newspaper on a specific date in history, e.g., the New York Amsterdam News on April 5, 1933, or the Atlanta Daily World on December 7, 1958. Next, using the full page view, I flipped through the digitized newspaper, similar to scrolling through a microfilm reader. This allowed me to immerse myself in that day’s news and to try to get a sense of why these particular stories would have been interesting to readers at that time. I was hoping to find things that I did not know I was looking for. Similar to the early period of digital literary studies that Amy Earhart describes, I followed a DIY approach and embraced “the sheer joy and freedom of bringing important texts to the larger scholarly community.”16 Once I found an article that caught my attention, I would then conduct additional searches using details from the article (e.g., people, places, events, etc.) to help better understand the context for the article I selected. Keyword searches were important for this project, but I found them to be more productive and less limiting when I used them as secondary or tertiary methods for searching the database. I would describe the resulting research process as a recursive method that toggles between serendipitous exploration and focused queries. While my selection of articles was idiosyncratic, this research process was easily replicated by others. I was fortunate that dozens of students from Manhattan College, Iowa State University, University of Richmond, and Arizona State University contributed guest posts, as did a number of other scholars. Contributors, and their affiliation at the time of writing, are identified at the top of the guest posts.
Ultimately, Black Quotidian attempts to structure digital interaction as an act of joy. The method of research exploration I used led me to several people, stories, and events from African-American history that were new to me. Historical figures such as Juanita Blocker, Blanche Thompson, Victoria DeLee, Dollree Mapp, and the Whitman Sisters are not unknown, but they are hidden in the archives if scholars do not know to search for them by name. The search functionality of digital databases is great when you know what you are looking for, but sometimes scholars need to get lost in order to find something new.
The next section considers how the Scalar web-authoring platform complements this model of research exploration.