The future of digital publishing is …

Web books, html5 books, web apps, open ebooks—whatever you call them, I am a proponent of these approaches to digital publishing and I’ve been happy to see they are gaining support in other places as well. Still, the big question remains: What do they look like, and how might we make them?

At the Museum Computer Network conference this year, I and two other panelists sought some answers for the field. After a quick overview of digital publishing today, we broke the session into three parts: I spoke about Git, GitHub (09:50) and open source software as an ad hoc and distributed approach to digital publication; Curtis Fletcher spoke about Scalar (29:57) as one of the leading examples of the packaged, open authoring and publishing platforms available today; and to demonstrate the possibilities of fully customized from-scratch web publications, Avery Swartz spoke about the rapidly growing collection of online books at the heart of the Art Canada Institute (54:36). The full audio synched with the slides is embedded below and available on YouTube.

I say at some point in the talk that I enjoyed putting these panels together to learn about the panelists’ projects for myself, as much as for the audience to do so. And that was definitely the case here. Some standout points for me were that Scalar includes built-in direct connections to a number of different image repositories, including the Getty’s collection, from which authors can import images directly and with complete metadata and caption information while also still maintaining a link to the original source (!); and I loved that Avery shared that even only a few years into the ACI project, they’d already had some lessons learned including a preference for responsive web design and the value of more extensive user testing.

All in all a very positive session, a good sign of things to come, and a great opportunity to learn more about what’s going on in digital publishing and some of the people making it happen!

Re: Another tool that might be worth looking into

I often write emails answering digital publishing questions and offering advice. And almost as often, I think I should just copy the email right onto the blog and share it with everyone. So, today I did.

Hi ______,

Good seeing you at MCN and I’m glad we got a chance to chat a little. I thought of one other tool that would be worth looking into. It’s called in5 and is an extension for InDesign that lets you export directly to HTML5, and it uses the same InDesign interactivity tools you would use to create a DPS publication. With the HTML5 export, you can post to the web, and, with the additional use of an open source tool called Baker, you can easily convert from HTML5 into a DPS-like app for iOS and Android.

There is a cost for the tool, but it’s modest. The creator of in5, Justin Putney, has written for the blog here. He is a very nice guy and could probably be hired to help on your publication if you’d want technical assistance. Or would certainly be able to point you to someone with experience using the tool.

Also, Adobe announced today they are discontinuing their Single Edition DPS offering. Which would mean were you to go with DPS, you’d have to sign up as a Pro or Enterprise user, which is really geared to making multiple DPS apps, and comes with potentially significant monthly and per-project costs. Adobe’s replacement for individual projects previously best suited for Single Edition is to suggest Fixed Layout EPUB (which InDesign can now export to), but honestly, to me those aren’t much more than glorified PDFs.


Times ergo sum

Is the increasing digital reality of museums any more real now that the New York Times has picked it up twice in a week?

Growing up in the DC area with New-York-born parents it was easy to think that nothing really existed until it was reported in the New York Times, or, in a stretch, Time magazine. (Yes, Millennials, it was once important.) Working in the New York museum world for the past [mumble-mumble] years only reinforced that, and maybe added “written about in The New Yorker” and “spoken about on NPR.”

So it was exciting to see that the Met, which sometimes gets the reputation of a limestone edifice, has been in the New York Times a few times recently for its ongoing digital transformation, whatever that might mean.

One story, “Museums Morph Digitally,” mentions the Met among other institutions—MoMA, the soon-to-be-reopening Cooper Hewitt and its amazing pen, the greater Smithsonian presence in DC. The article also discusses art-focused augmented-reality projects at Stanford University. There’s even a mention of Watson, the IBM computer that did really well at “Jeopardy!” (That sound you hear is a million curators rolling their eyes.) What exactly does it mean for a museum to morph?

What’s interesting is that the article cites the Met’s deputy director for collections and administration Carrie Rebora Barratt emphasizing that digital hasn’t hurt attendance or the museum experience, which can encompass those who want to use their devices and those who just want to wander through galleries. That of course is good news, though the question is, just who is that supposed to be reassuring—Luddite members or museum administrators and trustees?

The other Times story was a follow-up by the same writer, Steve Lohr, entitled “Digital Lessons from the Museum and Art World.” As if nodding extra-hard to digi-skeptics, he says, “As in most overview articles, some people interviewed were quoted in the piece and other voices were left out. The usual reason is for space and the related reason of sticking closely to the story line.”

Let’s get meta! His digital extension of a print-ish article includes two digital “voices,” those of the director of astro-visualization at the American Museum of Natural History, describing the very, very cool Digital Universe project, which uses big data to fill in a map of that biggest of data sets, the universe. (Okay, I guess the multi-verse is bigger. “It’s data all the way down,” to paraphrase.) The project was also the centerpiece of a very cool “Hack the Universe” event at AMNH last weekend (check out the hack-a-thon’s twitter feed at #hacktheuniverse). The other additional voice comes from Google’s data arts team, with a link to its Johnny Cash project. (Sounds like a good time to be a “project manager”.)

The point here isn’t that museums are doing great digital stuff (you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t believe it). It’s that perhaps this trend, years old, is finally reaching the most mainstream of the writing about the arts. The existence of tablets doesn’t scare the readers of print any longer. How many of us still provide long-distance tech support to parents trying to program their VCRs?

That this all is coming from the Times is slightly ironic, considering the role digital has had in its recent staff shakeups, including the firing/departure of executive editor Jill Abramson back in May. The “leaked” internal report on the need to improve the paper’s adoption of digital in the newsroom itself became required reading.

Museums know they’ve gone digital. What’s important to remember is that they haven’t stopped being analog. If the Times can find the point of digital among all the physical art, then we may be doing something right. If the Times acknowledges that it still has a ways to go to make digital work for something as fleeting as news, then we know we have a ways to go as well. 

PS: Hope to see you all at the Museum Computer Network in Dallas next week. I’ll be on two panels, and Beyond the Printed Page’s Greg Albers will be on one. Check it out!

Books in Browsers V: A digital publishing nerd’s heaven

Twenty-six talks lasting twenty minutes each spread over two days, Books in Browsers is scrappy, inspiring, humbling, exciting and exhausting. God, I love this conference.

I trolled the scrawls in my notebook for some highlights from this year’s edition (held October 23–24, 2014, at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco) to  share with our staff here at the Getty, and have further annotated them here. Read below, on SlideShare, or download the PDF.

These were my main takeaways, and I think there are some important things in there to sink your mental teeth into, but I’ve still missed some fantastic material. The talks by James English & Leonard Richardson, from New York Public Library; Derrick Schultz, from Atavist Books and Creatavist; and Adam Hyde, from PLOS come immediately to mind. And there are certainly even more. So read the notes, check out the videos, and I’ll see you in San Francisco next year for Books in Browsers VI!

The notes were built as a live HTML file with deck.js (open source under the MIT License) and use Reenie Beanie (SIL Open Font License) from Google Fonts.

Linking the Museum Digital

This week I’m highlighting three very different discussions of digital practice in the museum.

Did someone say technology and theory and museums?

Medium—for my non-profit money, the best long-form-content platform out there—has a series of very interesting essays exploring a host of questions on what digital can do for, and has done to, museums. Called CODE | WORDS, it so far has a total of six pieces from museum technologists in Dallas, DC, Chicago, Massachusetts, and Brazil. The idea is to tease out how multiple publishing and experiential platforms can be used to better understand the museum in the digital era. (The reverse, or perhaps the contrapositive, of the purpose of the Beyond the Printed Page blog.)

(Full disclosure: I found CODE | WORDS by way of being an astrophysics geek with an interest in the universe’s missing mass question and WIMPS [myself  excluded], which led me to Dark Matter by Michael Peter Edson, the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy, who lays out a compelling analogy between the increasing collective gravity of museum-related publishing in the digital era and the invisible mass that keeps galaxies from flying apart. Who says the soft and hard sciences aren’t related?)

Like everything good in Medium, these essays cover a lot of ground, from the siren song of the skeuomorphic and how ideas have to get it on, to the quest for a four-dimensional museum experience, to the museum’s evolving romantic relationship with popular culture (“cul-mance”?). Rob Stein, chief technologist at the Dallas Museum of Art, has a very interesting introductory essay on the project as a whole as well as a response to the debate over blindnesses both physical and cultural. And be sure to check out the links and references at the end of each piece.

More essays should be coming this fall (thanks to Ed Rodley for the info). Well done, long-form intertubes!

More from Design Thinking

In my continuing search for things that art book publishers should care about, I recently wrote about empathy as exemplified by Design Thinking. I’ve been following Dana Mitroff Silvers’ blog Design Thinking for Museums; her newest post is an interview with Shailoh Philips about the Rijksmuseum’s project Augmenting Masterpieces. Like all Design Thinking endeavors, there’s a lot of persona-building and prototyping, but also a mention about the importance in bringing all institutional parties on board.

For publishers, the idea of Minimum Viable Product is a hard one to contemplate—it seems rushed by nature, cutting corners by choice—but in an age of digital publishing, is the easy way always the worst way? When self-publishers are becoming book designers (not always good ones, but they’re trying) and reading up on the rule of thirds, can parts of the publishing process be more distributed, allowing publishers to take advantage of MVP ideas and get things (my preferred term) out there that aren’t huge printed catalogues or complicated digital productions?

If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice …*

Finally, like we need another article about print and ebooks (though if people stopped consuming content that had already been covered before, the entire global thought economy would collapse, and nothing epitomizes that better than Buzzfeed). Editor and writer Lincoln Michel, who curates Buzzfeed’s book coverage, has penned (byted?) an impressive rundown of the state of the state that lays out the strengths, weaknesses, and potential of print, digital, and all their many hybrids and combinations.

Michel doesn’t choose sides, which is encouraging. It’s good to see this:

In print, you will see more focus on design. In the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in special editions, beautifully designed and smartly curated series, and books that really have to be read on paper due to unique layouts or interior art.

These “beautifully designed and smartly curated series” sound like what we art book publishers do all the time, right? His next point is a valuable one:

In e-book land, I can see a lot of ways to exploit the advantage of digital files. A lot of self-published authors “bundle” short novels or stories together to let readers sample different authors. There is no reason that traditionally published authors couldn’t do that too. Maybe presses will sell cheap “samplers” of the writers on their catalog like music labels used to do. An e-book file can be as long as you want, so why not include bonus materials that would muck up a print book? (Here’s a more dystopian e-book vision: e-book apps that are free to download and start, but require in-app purchases to finish the entire narrative or get bonus material.)

Sure, he’s talking about novels and other texty publications to start, but even for art books, is bundling the future, or at least a future? Do curated reading lists with samples give visitors a chance to read parts of different books and relate them to a larger whole? For an encyclopedic museum, an easy bundling or book-building option, especially when digitally conceived and delivered, might be worth experimenting with. (Do I hear chants of MVP?)

More from the digital/print bleeding edge in future posts.

Until then, I will choose … Freewill!

Update: There’s a new post at CODE | WORDS! Mike Murawski, Director of Educations and Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, writes that digital represents a mindset much more than a technology, and that museums must go “open” to adjust to profound changes in our audiences.