Digital Scholarship with Scalar 2

Creating a work of digital scholarship can be daunting. Last year I published a piece called “Alice in Dataland 2.0″ (Kairos 20.1) that represented an incredible labor of mapping, organizing, and combining platforms from Twine to Construct 2 to hand-coded HTML5 and JavaScript into a fairly massive hypertext. The task is not one I’d recommend to other individuals setting out on a scholarly project, so as I think about my next work I’ve been investigating platforms that can make digital scholarship less daunting. One of the platforms I’ve found most interesting so far is The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC)’s Scalar, particularly with the introduction of Scalar 2 (shown above).

Scalar is a platform for what the ANVC calls “media-rich scholarly publishing,” which you can see in action in examples like Steve Anderson’s Bad Object 2.0: Games and Gamers. Essentially, it’s an open-source platform for combining multimedia content with well-structured HTML pages that is particularly targeted at scholarly publishing use cases and thus includes a lot of useful integration for that purpose.

While Scalar 2 is still somewhat in testing, it’s well-integrated into the environment and it offers many clear advantages over the original Scalar. The navigation structures have been improved, so readers should be able to easily move through in both a predictably linear manner using the table of contents and by following hyperlinked paths. The built-in visualization tools for the text are also a great improvement, as shown below in a screenshot of Dene Grigar and Stuart Moulthrop’s Pathfinders. It’s also much easier to integrate media throughout the book with detailed formatting options which resemble the options WordPress supports when importing media. Scalar 2 also takes media importation a step further with excellent options for providing source details and annotations. The level of specificity for annotating images is powerful, and very helpful for any work engaging with visual culture.

Many elements of working with Scalar 2 will feel familiar to users of WordPress: for each page you choose a layout, such as a big image header, a thumbnail gallery, or even a Google Maps-based page. Content can then be directly tagged to fill a particular role in the layout, and everything falls into place elegantly and (importantly for mobile friendliness) responsively. The mobile optimization works as well as most responsive templates I’ve seen, and is particularly elegant for tablet layouts. This is essential for the accessibility of any work on the web today, so it’s nice to have this level of awareness built right into the platform.

Why choose Scalar over something like WordPress? For a scholarly project, Scalar offers the advantage of being designed to think about a work as a book rather than a blog. The metaphors for navigation and use are thus appropriate to the task, and don’t require rethinking or overruling a reverse chronological default. Thus while Scalar has a lot in common with other content management systems, it also reminds me of a specialized version of Twine, designed to build a well-organized hypertext. I’ll be trying it out with graduate students and in my own projects.

Have you tried Scalar 2? Share your experiences in the comments!

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