From Archaeological Sites to Websites: How I got into Digital Publications

I recently began a new position with Getty Publications as their 2014-2015 Graduate Intern. Among other things, I will be working under Greg Albers, the Digital Publications Manager, to implement a number of exciting digital projects within the department. This includes writing for Beyond the Printed Page. Before diving into the world of digital publishing, I’d like to introduce myself by explaining who I am and how I got here.

First, my name is Stephanie Grimes. I’m a recent MA graduate who planned to pursue a profession in Classical Art History and Archaeology. Unintentionally, a collection of graduate training, innovative conversations, digital projects, and limitless caffeine led me down the road of digital humanities.

In 2012 I was more than half-way through my masters degree, working full-time as the School Operations Manager for an inner-city school in Washington, DC, and had just over ambitiously registered for Clio II: a course focused on using new media to present scholarly research.

“What does building a website have to do with Art History?”

In 2012 it seemed like everyone was asking me this question but I received my Master’s from George Mason University and as the home institution for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, the History and Art History Masters program places a particular interest in training their students on both the theory and practices of the digital humanities.

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Scholastic website showcasing Dionysian Sarcophagi. This site was created as a final project for the CLIO II class at GMU. Click on image to view the full website.

Clio II was both the meanest and best thing that I did for myself in graduate school. The course covered everything from the key elements of web design, to the mechanics of Photoshop, learning HTML and CSS, to rewriting and presenting academic scholarship in a way that is more inviting and engaging for website visitors than a term paper. I will admit that having had no prior knowledge of the fields listed above, this class almost broke me. Luckily, I was in-love with my subject matter and I wanted to present my scholarship in the best possible light. This was my inspiration for learning digital languages and tools. By the end of the semester I was quite proud of the digital platform I created yet one lingering question haunted me, after all of that work: Did anybody else actually care about Dionysian Sarcophagi?

With these thoughts in mind I shrugged off the question, put a mental “check box” next to one more requirement and tried to move on from the world of coding.

GMU Plaster Cast Website. Click on image to view the full website.

GMU Plaster Cast Website. Created under the supervision of Carol Mattusch and with the collaboration of Shellie Meeks. Click on the image to view the full website.

A year later while meeting with my advisor, Carol Mattusch, to discuss life after graduate school, we began talking about a prospective digital project. She had been working for ten years with students and colleagues to acquire, clean, and research over 60 plaster casts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was interested in creating a digital platform that would not only catalogue the casts but also showcase the 10-year project while promoting future scholarship and student participation.  One thing led to another and I was hired to bring this project to life. With ten years worth of images and scholarship I had free range to use the information as I saw fit. To put it mildly, I became obsessed with this project. Staying up to all hours of the night, designing and re-designing pages, writing and re-writing text, fidgeting with the html, editing images in Photoshop, all with one thought in mind: I wanted to build something that would convince site visitors to love the GMU Plaster Cast Project as much as I did. It was this dialogue with the anonymous public that reshaped my understanding of digital media and what it could do for scholarship. Was it Digital Art History, web-design, or the digital presentation of academic information? I couldn’t say, but I was hooked.

Website featuring Alexandria, Virginia's 19th-century stoneware collection from the Virginia Alexandria Archaeology Museum. This site was created under the supervision of Paul Nasca. Click on the image to view the website.

This website features 19th-century stoneware from Alexandria, Virginia’s Archaeology Museum. Created under the supervision of Paul Nasca. Click on the image to view the full website.

After completing the GMU Plaster Cast website I was hungry to learn more about creating digital content in a way that was both engaging to the public and useful for scholars so I began auditing Clio III: a GMU graduate level class that examined the practices of digital public history. For my final project I approached the curator of a small archaeology museum about increasing the museum’s digital presence through a website that could showcase their collection of 19th-century American stoneware. One of the most fulfilling aspects of this project was choosing a WordPress platform that was both cost-effective and user-friendly so that the project could sustain itself after I left the museum.

It had been just two years since I’d taken my first digital humanities course but the field of Digital Art History seemed to be sprouting up out of nowhere through blog posts, THATCamps, call for papers, and funding opportunities. At the end of the semester my instructor approached me about working with CHNM for the summer as a Research Associate. The center hosted two digital workshops:

1.) Rebuilding the Portfolio: DH for Art Historians (July 7-July 18)

2.) Doing Digital History (Aug 4- Aug 15)

Working at these “digital boot camps” allowed me to enhance my own digital skills while gaining an academic perspective about where the field of digital humanities is going and how it affects both Art Historians and Historians.

My digital projects have varied from presenting strictly scholastic information, to showcasing the academic work of others, to virtually promoting hidden collections in a museum, to teaching academics the digital tools and developing theories around the field of  digital humanities.  It is here that I have arrived at the door of Getty Publications and I am quite excited to see how the year unfolds as I focus my energy on the world of digital publishing.

The Fetish of the Print (and Digital) Book

What exactly is a book fetish, other than a clichéd excuse to hold onto sentimental texts?

BookFetishIn preparation for teaching this past summer, I pursued a relentless quest to find either museum publications or books on digital technologies in museums. What I found led me to the painfully personal conclusion that the “printed book versus e-book” debate circumvents a possibility to fetishize both formats.

Why I have craved the original text as an analog book when I can also own it digitally? Are there ways in which the analog book fulfills desire where an e-book falls short? And are there possibilities for e-books that can also elicit the same passionate, irrational commitments to printed books shared by devotees to the medium?

Definition of a Book Fetish

Seeking a book is a ritualistic act. In the Age of Amazon it begins with the desire to order a printed book—to engage with a text “in the flesh”—followed by awaiting its arrival, until the moment it’s delivered. Even when I am in my favorite bookstore I often need to order my books from the counter—rarely is what I need actually stocked on analog shelves. The same behavior applies at a favorite museum bookstore, where often the heft of an art book makes it too large to carry home.

The book’s arrival is announced by a package, often from Amazon, but occasionally from Abebooks or the ABAA, offering a moment to further ignore or engage with that particular subject.

Even neighbors will know if I am in deep-research mode because the boxes will stack, encased in overkill packaging. Once unwrapped, the book may sit on my desk on its spine—physical, present, its cover beckoning and sometimes even intimidating. The mere presence of a new book on my desk acts like a signifier—a constant physical reminder that I must engage with whatever rationale I had in those days prior to its arrival, and a social reminder to others around me that I still need to read. At some point, I had to have it, and I had to have it now—an Amazon Prime account rationalized in that single click.

Soon, those books start arriving in waves, and then they begin to stack. They become tall, totemic and haunting—now a constant reminder that I am not only behind in reading them, but that they are heavy. They exert pressure, in every sense and even by metaphor.

Books have heft and weight that prevent scooping them all up on one’s way out to read them. Even just two or three extra books carried from the library are often a load too heavy to bear, and rare is the day that anyone can read multiple books from cover to cover carefully. Am I carrying those heavy books as a sign of my commitment?

The books that I buy digitally, on the other hand, end up in their own forgotten place, a digital under-the-bed that never sees the light of day. I may buy them in a frenzy of good intentions, only to be distracted and not return to them. Often they are repurchased. It was a good idea to buy it once, but I have no memory of the cover, the unwrapping, the weight of the pages. Those things help me lodge the book into my memory. A digital copy possesses a pause as it downloads, but maybe it’s not long and agonizing enough, and I’ve since moved on to other things on my screen. As the download completes, I’ve already forgotten to return to check on its progress. Perhaps I only meant to buy it before. When I commit to hard copy, I am buying it for real this time.

I turn the pages in an analog book, and as the pile grows thicker under my hand on the left, while the pages on the right grow thinner, I always have a general sense of how far I am from the end. In a digital book, I never know that unless I check the tiny scroll counter. I don’t feel the same urgency to keep reading. Rarely do I flip ahead or return to past pages to cure fatigue or boredom in a digital book.

piles of books

Not my apartment, but could be. A little place discovered in Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries & Galloway, Scotland (source: http://bit.ly/1bC6Wsw)

Those analog piles of books on my desk can become oppressive, especially in notoriously small apartments. They carry weight. While the argument for digital texts are plentiful—they are instantaneous, portable, and movable across all kinds of devices—they are also nearly weightless. I can carry that book and that text with me on my phone, my Nook, my Kindle (and yes, over the years, in various acts of questionable judgment, I have owned all three). The problem is just that sometimes I forget that it’s there.

Fascinatingly and perversely, printed books are prone to excessive stresses and fractures in ways that digital text are not. A book existing in the analog world possesses a spine that can be cracked, pages that can be chewed or warped or torn, covers that can dislodge or dislocate. One study recently revealed even more horrifying mutilations, in the form of illegal substances in books out on library loan. So what else can an e-book do that an analog book cannot, besides escape tactile disfigurement?

The Best of Both Worlds

My favorite e-book feature is how I can see comments and highlights within texts contained on my Kindle, and the ease in which I can highlight or extract passages myself. Contributed comments co-exist as a more updated format of marginalia contained in used books. The act of engaging within a text, and in conversations with others, is how a book will become not merely memorable, but formative, and a way to connect to the outside world.

Bundling analog books with an e-book version could end once and for all the debate of “either/or” format. Why should we have to choose? Sometimes a busy trip means that a book I’ve desired from the museum bookstore becomes too heavy to carry. Maybe I’d commit if I could buy the digital copy on-site as easily as I could buy a postcard. Museums could then promise to snail-mail the hard copy to my home at some time in the future. (Or offer a free download of the e-book if I purchase the analog copy.)

Book_Labyrith

To push this suggestion even further: what if the purchase of an e-book in the future contained a tacit agreement to engage with the text, to discuss and debate and argue about the text with other readers? What if an expectation to engage with text became part of the e-book experience over time?

In this scenario, I want to reach back to a meta-book from 1940, called How To Read A Book“Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author,” Mortimer Adler wrote in his timeless 1940 meditation on marginalia as the yin-yang of reading and writing, declaring some daring words on how to entwine oneself in the text:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. (courtesy: Popova)

If the above acts of fervent marginalia from the past could become even more prevalent in the future, what questions would we start asking about analog books if they did not also exist digitally? Would we soon need to have both in possession, in order to separate notes in the marginalia from the original text? Maybe, eons from now, analog books on their own would become magic talismans that were “uncoupled” from their digital pairs. Books will always be mysterious objects to be collected, stacked, and even hoarded. They will always possess magical powers in their pages. How can some of that magic become re-introduced on the digital page unless we can own both?

In many ways, the future of collaborative reading and digital marginalia is already here. Devotees of Medium can leave notes directly for the author, or they can chose to leave them in the margins for the entire world to read. That kind of marginalia often grows into spin-off conversations and heated debate—but I am always struck by the generally positive tone that seems to be so encouraging and supportive of the writers themselves. Acts of bravery in writing are actually rewarded on Medium, and they are a far cry from the icky tear-downs on other platforms like the comments section of YouTube.

In the future, I must also hope that reading will no longer also have to be a solitary act. Once I was worrying about just how many books I was assigning students in my personal teaching, and a colleague said to me, “but reading alongside others is such a privilege. When else do you get to do that, except in school?” That’s when it struck me: I miss that feeling of reading alongside others,  and that feeling of readiness for debate and engagement with the text. It’s why I still crave that analog book and I also want the digital version to stay on-the-go: I want to be ready to have it at my fingertips, and to have that text with me at all times. Future modalities for reading and engaging with text in collaborative ways may just open up further possibilities for debate in any format to be owned, possessed, loved, and shared—in private acts and in public ways—all at once.

Looking to the Future

I was surprised to see the article The Future of the Future of Books by Lincoln Michel pop-up on a listserv this past week. There is usually snow on the ground and the New Year is usually right around the corner before we start seeing predictions about the future of books and digital publishing. And while much of it is pointed at the idea that print is not dead (yep, we all know and embrace that) and that comparing the advent of digital publishing cannot be compared to the advent of MP3s and iPods (many nice points), it is interesting that the predictions are partly distribution predictions (consumer bundling) and partly content focused, many of which museums are already grappling with such as adding more content to an ebook.  At one point, though, he states, “Art forms survive by figuring out what makes them unique, not by trying to emulate other mediums.” The sentence falls after dismissing enhanced digital publications as not “going anywhere” besides kids’ books and textbooks. Regardless of the content that surrounds it, this sentence has really made me think about digital publishing for art books.

Printed art books are set apart for their design, rich illustrations, and print quality.  And as a result, we tend to talk a lot about the challenges of producing digital art books which can have a hard time capturing those elements. Formats are restrictive. How do you create a publication to fit across all platforms ? Image rights are hard to obtain and are expensive. (I could keep going…) Part of producing digital books focused on art, though, is perhaps learning to let go of some of the traditional hallmarks of printed art books and embracing the uniqueness of the digital format and learning how to push the boundaries of whatever digital platform you are using in order to create a singular experience.

Empathy in Art Book Publishing

Empathy as a concept has made increasing inroads into the content field. Dana Mitroff Silvers wrote an excellent piece on “design thinking,” a particular take on visitor experience that her firm spearheaded in their work for the SFMoMA relaunch and have taken it on the road, as it were. (The article has links to several other interesting articles on empathy as part of museum visitor experience, targeting the needs of visitors as individuals.)

Empathy as a general idea was the subject of a back and forth about its usefulness in the New Yorker with a response in the Huffington Post. Museums struggling to increase membership and audience engagement are asking questions and trying to find personas in their audiences (the Met’s head of merchandising Jo Prosser has made the excellent point that one museum visitor can adopt many personas, even in a single visit).

Self-publishers have long been advised to understand their audiences—who is your reader? What do they read? What do they think? (The exercises in creating idealized readers can run close to serial-killer profiles, though.) In the digital era, publishers are advised to test their findings by changing links, updating prices, seeing reaction to particular social feeds, etc. That’s a lot of work on top of creating product.

For art museum publishers used to working in print, the need to work for both the institutional and the curatorial vision can create an audience dilemma—how to do you reach scholarly and general audiences with the same publication at the same time? This smacks of the old print versus digital dichotomy, never mind the timeworn museum loyal-old-versus-hot-new-audience dichotomy, from which follows the assumption that print is meant for traditional audiences while digital meant for millennials. The ensuing danger is confirmation bias, where research validates what you already believe. The result is silofication, as print publishers assume that digital will handle new audiences exclusively (while digital publishers probably aren’t losing sleep about print).

The added wild card is audience behavior. New devices and apps affect market trends (have tablets already lost their mojo?) and vice versa. The Met’s new app (shameless plug, and I didn’t even work on it) isn’t a whiz-bang tablet experience but a handy guide that works perfectly on the iPhone. Audience behavior affects print in more ways than just general preferences—remember how airlines’ charging for any checked baggage added a punitive tax to the purchase of heavy art books while on vacation?

This is where the idea of multiple personas can help. Who says that the person visiting the museum and using their phone as an audioguide (the Met app does audio stops) isn’t also an ideal customer for the beautiful print book? What about some of the content of the book? Can a mix of print and digital (and the latter as a mix of ebook and online, maybe even PDF) meet the individual needs of some museum visitors?

The answer starts with research. No one wants to drown our visitors in surveys, but the experience of self-publishers who have been told to build communities of their readers is worth examining. Publishers, both print and digital, need to create those kinds of communities and be ready to reach many audiences with many formats. Like empathy and visitor experience, publishing has to be more than just audience research; it has to take the individual user/reader/visitor into account. We’ve heard about hacking the museum, but perhaps we museum publishers need to hack our audiences back. After all, empathy is acknowledging the experience of the other and learning to experience it ourselves from their point of view.

How do you open an e-book?

nutcrack

Photo by philografy. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most vexing. 

The things we call “e-books” come in a variety of file formats. PDF, EPUB, MOBI, IBA, and FOLIO are among the most common, but aside from PDF, most people (including even avid readers of e-books and a surprising number of publications folks) have no idea what these files are, how they work, or what the differences are between them. Thanks to the current e-book ecosystem, they don’t need to. In the current system, most e-books are sold directly from vendor to reader within a specific app or device. A reader simply opens their e-reader, finds the book they want, clicks “buy”, and the file downloads and opens for reading. They never see the file itself (like we see a JPG or DOC file) and never have to give a thought as to how to open it.

This seamlessness seems like a good thing. It is, in fact, this convenient, direct app/device-to-file connection that made e-books take off the way they did starting in 2007 with the first Kindle. The trouble is though, that this is also a form of lock-in for readers. Because the file format and access process is obfuscated behind the interface of a single company’s device or app, individual readers are far less likely to leave that company to buy other e-books. Encryption issues aside, most wouldn’t know what files to look for, or what to do with the files once they bought them.

Likewise for publishers. While the conveniences Amazon, Apple and others have created have in turn created a viable market within which to sell our e-books, we are as locked-in as readers. We are now dependent on just a few companies to distribute our digital publications, and we are limited to the formats those companies choose to support. This should not be acceptable to us as publishers. We must actively move toward a dynamic, universal and open publishing ecosystem. This will require us going out on our own, and on finding ways to connect our readers to our books outside the walled gardens of Seattle and Silicon Valley. However, in doing so we must realize that our readers will in turn run head on into that most basic question: How do you open an e-book?

Give Kindle owners a MOBI file, and most are going to have no idea that by plugging their reader into their computer, they can move the file onto it as easily as copying a picture onto a flash drive.

Email iPad readers an EPUB, and few will know that by simply opening that email on their iPad, they can move the EPUB file directly into an e-reading app. Or that there are dozens of free and low-cost EPUB reading apps available for every kind of tablet, smartphone, laptop and desktop computer, and that it’s the native file format for almost every dedicated e-reader device in the world.

Sell someone an HPUB file and, well, good luck with that.

Bridging this gap is going to require a level of education (readers and publishers alike), and while difficult, I believe it’s also necessary. We can teach people how to do these things, and we also need to give them a reason to make the effort by offering them benefits that outweigh the conveniences established by the bigger, trade vendors. Benefits perhaps like encryption-free files they own rather than lease, illustrated and interactive formats and publications they can’t otherwise get, competitive pricing, curated and authoritative selections of amazing digital art books.

Along with this process, there’s another approach to the problem that I’m also intrigued with. While we can educate readers to help themselves, what can we do on a technology end to make it so they don’t need to? Ideally, every digital device sold, should have a default application that will open our chosen e-book file format. Take for example the ubiquitous, universal PDF. It works for people in large part because they don’t have to give a moment’s thought to how to open it. No matter what device they have, no matter how they receive the file, people just need to double-click and it opens. Easy. Seamless.

What if, like Apple is now doing, every new computer and device came pre-loaded with an EPUB reader? What if every internet browser came to natively support HPUB or other HTML-based digital book formats? What if we could deliver individual e-books like software, bundled with their own common e-reading application? What if opening an e-book was as easy as opening a print book?

Sometimes the simplest questions are the most important.