Not much more than three months ago, I wrote a post here titled “From photocopy to EPUB, artists’ e-books are coming”. Now, in collaboration with The Present Group, I’m building The People’s E-Book, a super-simple online tool to make e-books for free. It’s geared to artists and alternative publishers, but useful for everyone, and is meant as a way of making the .epub format much more approachable and achievable. We’re running a Kickstarter campaign to fund it, and there are more details and more about our vision for the tool on the project page there, or follow along with us at thepeoplesebook.net.
Currently on view at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum is the exhibition Jasper Johns / In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print (May 22—August 18, 2012). The show grew out of an art history course taught by Jennifer Roberts. As she describes it:
The course, initially proposed by the Harvard Art Museums as a way to experiment with new forms of curricular collaboration in advance of the opening of its renovated building, was intended to give undergraduates the opportunity to design and mount an exhibition centering on objects in our collections. Four juniors enrolled in the class: Jacob Cedarbaum, C. Andrew Krantz, Mary Potter, and Phillip Y. Zhang. Their work in conceptualizing and planning the exhibition was so outstanding that the Art Museums decided to develop and promote a much larger and more ambitious exhibition than had originally been envisioned …
This alone is a story worth noting. It is a wonderful example of a meaningful collaboration and engagement between a museum and some of its primary constituents. It is also a wonderful example of what I would call “agile thinking”. With little fear of failure, they tried something simple and relatively low-risk (a course with a few students, focused on a single work, with the idea of mounting a small exhibition at the end) and when they saw it was working, they expanded it. Smart. Agile.
Here’s my favorite part: Along with the exhibition and its traditional catalogue, Harvard Art Museums also created a digital publication of “Companion Essays” written by the four student curators, and released it for free download on the exhibition site. Awesome. It’s fully illustrated, edited, and beautifully and professionally designed (at the level of the print catalogue I’m imagining). It’s a cheap and reasonably simple way of getting more exhibition information out in a meaningful and frictionless way. Or what I’d call “agile publishing”.
I first discovered the project from a tweet by Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee:
Smee went on with a half dozen more tweets quoting the “Companion Essays”, but he didn’t once, notably, mention the traditional print catalogue. Museums looking at projects like this, and especially those with an interest in social media, would be well-served to ask why this is. Is it because the essays in the print catalogue aren’t any good? Probably not. Is it because Smee didn’t know the print catalogue existed? Unlikely. Or, is it at least in part because the free, instant digital download, from wherever he was at the time (in his office, on the train, sipping a cocktail on his back porch) gave him immediate and easy access to the information he was interested in, when he was interested in it?
So, where can Harvard Art Museums and others looking into agile publishing projects like this go from here? I’d suggest a couple next steps, based on Harvard’s project specifically, but applicable to everyone.
The division between the printed catalog and the digital essays is arbitrary. Print both! Look at print-on-demand (POD) if you’re nervous about spending extra money with Hatje Cantz Verlag on a second or expanded book, or if time is a factor. Also, digitize both! You cleared rights and digitally published 88-pages of essays, you can do the same for 96-pages of catalogue. You can even charge money for it, though you’ll have to give some thought to the difference between a 96-page book for $45 and an 88-page one for $0, and you would want to maintain a free download option, at least for an extended excerpt, or better yet, the complete main essay.
A PDF is not (by itself at least) a digital publication. A digital publication should be formatted and optimized for reading on digital devices. While a PDF is easy to create and can be read on a variety of devices, except in a few cases it’s not close to an ideal digital reading experience, especially when it has obviously been formatted after a print book. Digital publishing = PDF + EPUB + MOBI/Kindle formats. These three together will give your readers a truly native, digital reading experience on any device they own (Kindle, Nook, iPad …) and it’s well worth the effort to make it happen.
Of course, both these ideas are simply about giving readers access to the material in as many formats as possible, or what I’d call ”agile reading”.