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.

Post written by Elizabeth Cornell. 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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