January 8, 2015


Publishing that takes the E-Book to New Dimensions

By Desa Philadelphia

All digital writing is not created alike. A student writing for the SCA website might be happy that the illustration of her blog post is just one embedded movie or game trailer. But when working on her thesis project she needs to reference so many different kinds of media that linking, embedding and referencing becomes a new-media nightmare.

A scholarly article written in Scalar that includes a media archive

Enter Scalar, a web authoring and publishing platform designed specifically to accommodate digital writing for academic purposes. “It was designed with scholars or students in mind, to think about new ways to do academic writing, but it can be used by anybody,” says SCA Professor Tara McPherson, who spearheaded the development team. “It’s a way to think about new kinds of writing for the 21st century, and that includes multiple kinds of media as well as text.”

The platform allows users to create long form writing that is born-digital. It’s like taking an e-book and turning it upside down, side-to-side and inside out because Scalar deliberately expands on traditional linear presentations. Instead it allows the author to link, combine or layer source materials—whether it’s her own text or movie, or you-tube clips, other articles, data visualizations or sound. If it exists on the internet, there is a way for her to incorporate it into a Scalar book, and to do so in a way that is uniquely her own. “Scalar is consistent with the way we try to teach at the Cinema School,” says McPherson, who teaches in the Critical Studies and Media Arts + Practice divisions. “We want both students and scholars to think: here’s what I want to communicate, now what’s the best form or medium to communicate that in?”

A project exploring over 2,500 photographs by the photographer Edward Curtis which also involved students.

Scalar grew out of  work on the digital journal Vectors, which highlights the cultural changes catalyzed by technology. The idea also benefited from a growing pool of scholars who wanted to work with digital materials in their scholarship. With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, McPherson led a team to create the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, charged with studying and creating scholarly visual media.  The Alliance released Scalar as an open source platform, partnering with archives, libraries and university presses to provide the kind of content and relationships that would demonstrate its potential.

Scalar projects like Performing Archive: Curtis + “the vanishing race,” which includes scholarly essays and Edward S. Curtis’ historic photographs of the American West and its Native peoples, and Freedom’s Ring, a multimedia exploration of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, offer media-rich annotated displays. The project’s partners, including the public media archive Critical Commons led by USC professor Steve Anderson, offer creators built-in access to materials without additional hurdles like trips to the library of clearing copyrights. The platform is also easy to use. Like many blog sites, you don’t have to know how to code to use Scalar, often just inputting a link and text is enough. However, the open source and extensible nature of the platform means authors with coding expertise can personalize its capabilities. McPherson says such manipulations are welcome. “One of the goals we have for Scalar is to stretch people’s imagination about how they can communicate and how they can undertake research,” she says.

Perusing a finished Scalar publication is really remarkable. The end-user can choose her own “path” through the materials, sometimes based on her interests using “tags” that group related content. “It’s a small set of relations between the content but it’s really powerful and really flexible,” explains Erik Loyer, Scalar’s Creative Director. Moreover, as its name suggest, the Scalar platform offers the user (it’s tempting to say “reader”) the ability to consider the work on different scales, whether contemplating the project as a whole presentation, or focusing on its various parts—a video or photo for instance. (Compare it to the way a user can zoom in and out when using Google Maps.)

A project that uses Scalar's API to create an app-like experience

Another exciting development is that Scalar is already showing promise beyond academia. “Scalar is now being used by creative writers and by artists interested in new, interactive forms of documentary.  We’re pleased to see this broader uptake and look forward to having creators take Scalar in directions beyond what we initially designed it for,” says McPherson After its beta release in early 2013, Scalar won an Editor’s Choice award from PC Magazine.

Considering that the demand for online journals is only growing, the Scalar platform should have an exciting journey as it is frequently reinvented to facilitate scholarly communication online. “There’s a real demand for a format to write this kind of work,” says Loyer, a media artist who specializes in interactive essays (he is also the Creative Director of Vectors). “The way Scalar links to media creates a chain from the scholar to the archive to the public that can be really seamless,” he says. “And that’s what we see people getting really excited about.”