Remembering the Black Past: Connecting with a Diverse and Global Public
PhD candidate Quin’Nita Cobbins is the webmaster for BlackPast.org, the largest online African American and Global African reference center that provides free and accessible information to millions of people across the globe. In this grad student profile, Quin’Nita tells us about her work on the website, the meaningful engagements with the public it facilitates, and the new perspective it has given her on her own work.
Perhaps you could begin with a brief overview of your work on BlackPast.org. How would you describe your role in this organization? What kind of work do you do on a day-to-day basis?
My responsibilities as webmaster consists of maintaining the content on BlackPast.org; uploading new articles, entries, and media content; updating administrative parts of the website as needed; editing and cropping photos; researching claims of historical significance and verifying their accuracy. I also write and contribute entries and work on various projects.
But most commonly, I respond to general email inquiry. This is where I engage the public the most. I respond to emails ranging from people who want to know how to get their family’s land back that was stolen in 1920s Alabama to incarcerated prisoners (I do not know how they get access to the internet) looking for solace in Africa once freed; from a New Zealand graduate student studying black musical composers to black artists and literary writers seeking a venue for advertisement; from people who need information about donating valuable artifacts found in an attic to those who challenge the very labeling of our website as “African American history” rather than “black history.” That’s the kind of appeal our website has that attracts a very diverse and global public.
What sort of skills does your work with BlackPast.org require that are different from the sort of skills you use in a more “academic” setting? How is your work with BlackPast different from the academic work you do?
Well, for one thing, this experience has put me in a broader network of students, researchers, professionals, and teachers from across the world who use the website as a reference, for research, and as a teaching resource. Therefore, I have gained skills and knowledge in guiding this particular public on how to find information not only on our website but in other places they may not be familiar with such as local historical societies, city and state archives, and Internet sources. This requires that I communicate effectively to a very diverse group of people and that I am able to recommend other websites and digital sources (other than books) since the public craves quick and digestible consumption of information.
Secondly, the most obvious skill is technical. I have always been technologically savvy, however, I am gaining invaluable skills in content management systems, working on collaborative projects, web content writing, fixing minor technical errors and glitches, scrubbing text, and so on.
In what ways does your work with BlackPast inform your academic work? For instance, have you had any revelations about your dissertation topic that came as a result of your work at BlackPast.org?
The website informs my thinking about the African American past and its future. There is still so much to learn, understand, and teach about the history of people of African descent as the world and societies change. Everyday I learn something new that I did not know before and I am, at most times, blown away. It gives an assessment of how far we have come but also how far we have to go in asking new questions while answering long-standing ones.
How do you bridge the gap between the rigorous academic work we do as graduate students with a more accessible, “useable” base of knowledge that can, as the mission statement puts it, “generate constructive change in our society”?
Well, for me, BlackPast.org provides a space for producing online historical scholarship. I have published and contributed bits and pieces of my research on the website that profile several women who I am examining in my dissertation. Hardly anyone will ever read my dissertation but hundreds, even thousands, will read those entries, which bring greater attention to the history of African Americans in the American West. Many scholars, independent historians, and graduate student contributors’ write short entries also related to their research or longer pieces called “Perspective Articles” that provides insights into their particular scholarship. These kinds of scholarly contributions offer accessibility and bridges academic work with a “useable” base of knowledge for the public.
What advice do you have for fellow grad students interested in getting involved in this sort of public scholarship?
I would suggest searching for historical websites that crowd source. There are a number of sites that need contributors to help add content to their databases. This is a great alternative for graduate students who wish to publish scholarly work that will reach broader audiences.
What is so amazing about engaging and interacting with the public is that they play an important role in the success and the growth of the website. The public brings to our attention websites, museums, churches, events, or people who should be listed on our website. They read our entries, timelines, and articles and give suggestions on correcting information such as typos or small errors which really help to keep our website up to date and as accurate as possible. There is a reciprocal relationship between us. They really do hold us accountable to the information we disseminate.