Browse Month: August 2011

Scalar: An Option for Digital Humanities Publishing

Malibu Beach Surfer, 2011. Photo by R. Goldwitz

Elizabeth Cornell, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University, has been reporting on her recent summer residency at the NEH-Vectors-CTS Summer Institute at the University of Southern California. She is also the Project Coordinator for the Keywords Collaboratory, a wiki-based space where students and researchers can collaborate on keywords projects inspired by the book, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. This is her last installment.

Oliver Wang has written a book exploring the social history of Filipino American mobile DJ crews in the Bay Area, forthcoming from Duke UP. His visual archive contains video footage of that scene and hundreds of different DJ crew business cards. These days, the web is great place to make a book’s visual archive available to readers. But dumping all that multimedia onto YouTube can defeat the critical purpose of offering it in the first place. And building a web site is time consuming and expensive. One solution, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is the publishing platform Scalar, under development at the University of Southern California, which allows for a clean integration of text and multimedia.

On the first day of the Vectors-CTS Summer Institute on Digital Approaches to American Studies, held at USC, Oliver and other participants presented the material they planned to develop with Scalar.

Another project was Carrie Rentschler’s “38 Witnesses: A Media Archive of the Kitty Genovese Murder.” The 1964 murder is well-known, in part because no witness came to the young woman’s aid. In her Scalar project, Carrie’s textual commentary complements archival resources and recent cinematographic attempts from student to professional film makers to show how the life and death of Genovese has been mediated in her life after death. Scalar allows Oliver and Carrie to interface text with image in dynamic, often nonlinear ways, greatly expanding the depth of their arguments.

After seeing these and other presentations with their rich visual, audio, and textual resources, I was elated. But I felt a little glum about my own project, a largely text-only endeavor. I was attending the Institute to explore how Scalar might at some point be used as a companion to Glenn Hendler and Bruce Burgett’s book, Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Another goal was to investigate how the Keywords Collaboratory—a MediaWiki where students around the country produce largely text-based essays on keywords they’re tracing in their coursework—might be transformed by a platform such as Scalar.

Fortunately, my glumness quickly evaporated. At the Institute I had a design team made up of deeply creative individuals: Tara McPherson, leader of the Institute; John Carlos Rowe, American Studies scholar; and Craig Dietrich, one of Scalar’s two main creators. The keywords project interests them because it does not have extensive multimedia material associated with it. They want to see how Scalar might be used in a largely text-based way and, at the same time, leave the portals open for people who wish to add multimedia. They also are interested in how Scalar might serve as pedagogical tool for collaborative work, an essential component of the keywords project.

Scalar does seem promising: Users can easily add text and upload multimedia; no HTML knowledge required. When it comes to collaborating, it’s possible to see who contributed what and when, and to view the project’s version history. The finished project looks clean and is easy to read, whether there’s only text or image on the page, or text and image. Readers and authors can leave comments for each other. Unique tags link to the book’s pages, sources, and images, revealing relationships among seemingly disparate elements and encouraging nonlinear navigation of the article or book.

Scalar still has some kinks that need working out. But for the humanities students who were born wired, Scalar might be the answer to the MediaWiki’s limitations. For the humanities scholar who feels frustrated by current digital publishing platforms, or simply fears the learning curve involved with new technology, Scalar might be the answer, too.

Travel Blog: Finding New Ways to Publish in the Digital Humanities

A visualization of media and their relationships to the pages in a Scalar book.

This month Elizabeth Cornell, a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University, will be reporting on her summer residency at the NEH-Vectors-CTS Summer Institute at the University of Southern California. She is also the Project Coordinator for the Keywords Collaboratory, a wiki-based space where students and researchers can collaborate on keywords projects inspired by the book, Keywords for American Cultural Studies, edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. This is the second installment of her report.


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For most students and researchers working in the humanities, Microsoft Word is an essential and, when it’s not causing a frustrating formatting problem, transparent tool. But Word’s usefulness is somewhat limited in the digital humanities, where people value collaborating with others; reaching a wide audience inside and outside the academic world; commenting on the work of others; and using multimedia. If Word can do any of these things, it does so in a very limited way.

Of course, there are blogs, wikis, and web sites. They are better at displaying images and pointing readers toward other multimodalities. Readers can comment on blogs and writers can collaborate on a wiki article. Web sites are a more involved product and most researchers would rather be researching and writing than taking the time to plan and design a useful site. The advantage to these forums is that, unlike a book, they are not static; the information they contain can be modified. But what about, for example, a cinema studies paper that needs to draw on a large amount of original source material? What about researchers with access to large, often personal, databases and visual, audio, and digitized print archives? How do you get that multimedia to interface with text and commentary in a seamless, elegant way?

Enter the software platform, Scalar. As I mentioned in my previous post, Scalar is under development at USC and designed specifically for people working in the humanities. It facilitates the kinds of analytical and contextual arguments that have long been central to humanities-based research. Scalar allows for a dynamic exchange between readers and writers. Authors can use multimedia to illustrate their essays or add a visual argument to them. Paths link different pages and sources together in varying configurations, releasing us from the linear, left to right hierarchy of the printed book. Unique metadata such as tags can be added to the pages and media in Scalar, allowing authors to devise their own nuanced systems of categorization and identification. This encourages connections between terms, subjects, and sources that otherwise may not be obvious. In addition, Scalar allows collaboration among multiple authors on a single work. Readers can leave comments and, in some cases, add to the book their own written and visual material.

Scalar makes it easy for users to draw directly from multimedia databases and archives such as Critical Commons and the Internet Archives, two sites with vast holdings of multimedia curated and uploaded by researchers and educators to be used for critical purposes. The material collected on these sites ranges from digitized books in the public domain to video interviews with Holocaust survivors to clips from “The Simpsons.” The use of the material is protected by fair use agreements and a code of best practices for copyrighted material used without permission. (For more information about fair use, see American University’s Center for Social Media website.)

For my next post, I’ll offer more details about my project at the NEH Vectors-CTS Institute in the Digital Humanities, which is to develop into a Scalar book several essays from Glenn Hendler and Bruce Burgett’s book, Keywords for American Cultural Studies.


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