On Tuesday, February 7, Shawn Hill taught a workshop entitled “Introduction to Scalar” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. Scalar is an interactive online publishing platform that allows authors to develop several paths of reading for their users. This platform offers new methods of publishing information, no longer limited to a single, linear reading but instead open to forks in the narrative, direct annotation to items in the book, and user commentary. Hill guided workshop attendees through setting up an account with Scalar, creating a book, adding text, images, videos, and other media to their publication, and setting up paths for their users.
Fordham University’s Instructional Technologist, Shawn Hill, conducted a workshop entitled “Introduction to Scalar” on the morning of February 7 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Hill’s workshop provided introductory information regarding Scalar, an online publishing platform, as well as more advanced steps in publishing material through it. This platform, and the interest in it as demonstrated by workshop participation, alludes to the movement in publishing toward conditions more favorable for digital humanities.
Hill began his workshop by answering some basic questions, including the most fundamental: what is Scalar? Scalar is a free, open source platform for authoring and publishing created by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC) at the University of Southern California. This platform makes it easy for users to create born-digital projects of any length, from short response papers to dissertations and monographs. Users may assemble media from several sources in Scalar and bring them into their own writing in a variety of ways. They are able to incorporate audio, video, images, tags, paths, and annotations — features unique to digital writing.
Hill also described why one “needs” Scalar. These needs stem from both personal growth and professional use. First, users can become comfortable with multi-threaded, non-linear texts and their creation. The Internet offers new means of communicating ideas, including texts that may not follow the familiar pattern of reading one may find in a traditional print book, and Scalar is a way of being introduced to such practices of publication. This platform also allows authors to annotate all content, including images and video. Further, users can comment on content with any form of media; they are not limited to providing textual annotations but may use video to describe text, images to describe videos, or images to describe images. Finally, Scalar permits its users to create and apply metadata, such as tags, to curate their material. Metadata can be helpful as an organizational tool for the website or book and promotes its relevance in search engines. If a Scalar book is tagged with a topic, websites like Google can detect the tag and offer it as a suggestion to their users.
Following this discussion on the basics of Scalar, Hill explained the more practical components to creating a Scalar “book.” Potential authors interested in developing a project on Scalar should first set up an account. Hill had participants create temporary accounts on Fordham’s Scalar domain, but anyone may register for free at scalar.usc.edu or have their IT department install Scalar for free in their university. Once they have signed up, users can start their project by going to their Dashboard and entering a name into the Create New Book text box and clicking Create.
The rest of the workshop was divided into three major sections according to level of ability: core skills, intermediate skills, and advanced skills. Core skills, as described by Hill, included text, images, video, and paths. A page must be added for each piece of text in the “book;” on each page, users will give a title and description before adding the text in the editor. Images and videos are then added through the Local Media Files option under the Import Menu, and a title and description is added to these media pages as well. The images users add to Scalar may come from the Internet or local computer files and are stored locally on Scalar. Videos, however, must be stored through a different service and streamed to Scalar from websites like YouTube or Vimeo.
The final core skill Hill described was the creation of paths on Scalar, a part of the platform that makes it especially unique and valuable. Paths are routes through a text that readers may follow while reading it, similar to a “choose your own adventure”-style novel, and are developed using the Relationships function in Scalar. Hill used the example of a history of New York City as a possible Scalar project with multiple potential paths. If a reader is interested in the Dutch history of New York, they may choose the “Dutch History” path, which would take them through the Dutch history as described by the author. If another reader is interested in the labor history of New York, they may opt for the “Labor History” path. At any point these paths may intersect, whether through shared pages or in annotations that describe, for example, a Dutch labor leader mentioned on the text of an original page. Users can follow their path through to the end, change their paths halfway through, or reorganize the book by its images, tags, or pages of text.
Hill went on to discuss the intermediate level of Scalar skills. The first of these is the index, which allows users to access each section of their project through various descriptive tabs. He then talked about annotation of text, images, and videos on via Scalar, mentioning they have similar structures to pages, with the title, description, and content needed for each. Hill wrapped up the intermediate section with two suggestions regarding pages and media, recommending limiting the length of pages so the reader does not have to scroll extensively and only inserting a few media on each page since too much visual content can limit reader’s ability to load pages.
The workshop concluded with Hill’s description of advanced skills, including tags, table of contents, references, and bibliography. Tags in Scalar mark that pages have a topic in common, and can be added to any text or media in a book. They arrange the content of the book thematically and let readers see links between sections they may have never noticed otherwise. Authors may also create a table of contents to help organize the book for themselves and their users as well as provide access to individual pages from a convenient menu on each page. Scalar also allows for references for any content, which pop up as an annotation on the text, image, or other media. Users can also create a bibliography in citation software and export it into a new Scalar page; their entries may be hyperlinked to the footnotes for specific bibliographic reference.
Scalar brings academic publishing to the digital age, potentially reflecting a paradigm shift like the one detailed by Cathy N. Davidson (2008) as Humanities 2.0. As Davidson points out, the humanities need to embrace technological developments. While Scalar may not provide some of the computational aspects that a digital humanist might expect with this movement, it is revolutionary as a publishing platform. Scholars can publish their monographs, dissertations, and articles in unique forms and control multiple narrative flows that would otherwise be deemed impossible in traditional publications. Scalar also offers content-intensive digital humanities projects a new means of displaying their research, becoming the perfect cross between a WordPress or Omeka site and a Kindle eBook.
The front-end of a Scalar project also demonstrates some of the characteristics of Web 2.0, described by Tim O’Reilly (2005) as usable, participatory, remixable, and social. First, Scalar is fairly easy to navigate for readers, with paths clearly designated on the screen. The readers also have similar organizational menus to the ones available to the author, allowing more advanced users to arrange the book according to their interests and needs. These readers can interact with the book through comments as well. Although the author referees the comments, the possibility for discussion and participation is present. Finally, Scalar takes more advantage of the capabilities of the web than most eBooks, bringing a more immersive experience to its users than the average Kindle read and offering new options for display that are more accessible to different kinds of learners.
There are two issues with Scalar regarding digital humanities and its academic functions. The first issue is with the authority of a Scalar project. Scalar is not reliable as a means of promotion and tenure, since scholars publishing on Scalar are currently doing so without a peer review process. As Michael Jensen (2007) points out, this goes against the previous models of publication and shows the shift toward new forms of authority bestowed upon scholars by what appears to administrators as a less qualified community. Scholars seeking jobs and promotions may be hesitant to use a publishing platform that is less established and trusted if they will not benefit from their publications.
The second issue pertains to collaboration. As argued by Anne Burdick et al. (2012), “We are moving from an era of scholarship based on the individual author of the ‘great book’ to an era of scholarship based on the collaborative authoring possibilities of the ‘great project’” (p. 83). For a platform so advanced in the ideas of digital publishing, Scalar seems limited in collaborative possibilities. In the workshop, Hill suggested that users who wanted to collaborate should set up an account under one email and share the login information. This is a poor model of collaboration. If the user whose email is used to create the account wanted to create a second project, all of the users with the login information would have access to their project; if the original user changed the password for privacy, then the collaborative aspect of the original project is defunct. The Scalar website claims that projects can actually have multiple authors, but it makes no indication how to create a project with multiple authors on different accounts. The platform may want to consider developing a model closer to that of WordPress, which rather plainly allows multiple users to access the same website with their own login information while allowing privacy for the website administrator’s personal websites.
Ultimately, however, Scalar is a promising publishing platform that offers new ways of creating digital projects and displaying them to users. Although it needs some tweaks regarding collaboration and may not be considered an authoritative means of publication, Scalar is a step forward in digital humanities publishing. Workshops like the one held by Shawn Hill will promulgate new ideas of publishing and help shift the paradigm toward digital humanities-friendly ideas of peer review and authorship.
Shawn Hill and the DH community at Fordham University is interested in connecting with schools in the New York City area interested in Scalar and/or digital humanities in general. Those interested in having Shawn share this workshop or another workshop on digital humanities with their school can contact him at email@example.com.
To learn more about Scalar, visit The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC. The ANVC also offers webinars about once a month and maintains an archive of previous webinars for those who missed the original presentation.
Check out example projects on Scalar:
Burdick, A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T., & Schnapp, J. (Eds.). (2012). Digital Humanities. Cambridge, MA; London, UK: The MIT Press. Available from https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262018470_Open_Access_Edition.pdf
Davidson, C. N. (2008). Humanities 2.0: Promise, perils, predictions. PMLA, 123 (3), 707-717.
Jensen, M. (2007). Authority 3.0: Friend or foe to scholars? Journal of Scholarly Publishing, 39 (1), 297-307.
O’Reilly, T. (2005). What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. Retrieved from http://www.oreilly.com/pub/a/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html
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