Scalar and the Challenge of Writing Media-Rich Scholarship for the Web

Alright, I admit that title was a mouthful.  Basically, I just wanted to alert readers who may not have heard of it that there’s a new, web-based digital authoring tool called Scalar that they may find useful.  It’s an open-source application built by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC.  Unlike many authoring tools, it was designed by scholars for scholars, and more particularly by new media scholars for the new media environment.

What does it do? Scalar allows authors to create units of web pages called “books” (imagine that!), that they can organize as they will and index robustly.  You can, for example, design “paths” through your work based on anticipated readers’ needs: those of you who need to know who Lenin is, go here, those who only want to see Malevich’s paintings, go there.  Perhaps most attractively from my point of view, Scalar combines the ease of blogging with elegant tools for incorporating media into your work (as well as for annotating images, videos, texts, etc.).

There’s a lot more that can be said about Scalar.  Its thoughtful design both opens up fantastic opportunities for web-based scholarship, and forces us to think about how we produce, curate, and disseminate knowledge in our new media era.  But since this post is mostly informational, I’ll stop there for now and perhaps come back to the topic later.

I’ll concludes with one personal anecdote.  The data recently migrated at my school.  I lost my old personal website, a site that I built with my own two hands in a little log cabin on the Illinois prairie, the old fashioned way, using HTML.  I cried a little inside: and then I used Scalar to build a new one.  It was easy! And as I was working along, I also created a short essay about the song, “When I Served the Coach as a Postman,” featuring this stunning performance by Ivan Skobtsov (1900-1983).  Perhaps RHL readers may find it interesting, as well.  Skobtsov’s performance is certainly not to be missed.

By John Randolph

John Randolph is Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois.

3 replies on “Scalar and the Challenge of Writing Media-Rich Scholarship for the Web”

Thanks for the link, Gleb!

The short answer to your question is that I haven’t yet done that myself. I’m planning, with a colleague, to create Scalar projects for students this coming spring (we’re collaborating on a couple of assignments we’ll be giving to different classes). But not having done it myself–and with Scalar itself still in Beta–I can’t say I fully comprehend the complexities.

I read your article and I think what I would say is that Scalar requires more active instruction than using Google Sites or (say) Tumblr for a class. It’s not hard to use Scalar; but it forces us to be more careful in how we curate the media we use. In that sense, it requires a more conscious philosophy about fair use, etc. In a blog, the newest material automatically goes at the top; in Scalar, you have to define the relationships between objects (pages, media, annotations, etc.) So it’s a more self-conscious program, in general.

All of which, to my mind, is to the good. It highlights the philosophical and archival concerns in multimedia design. That said, whereas you might be able to get away with telling a group of students, “Here’s a Wiki, go for it!,” teaching and working with Scalar will take class time. For reasons that you discuss in your article, I’m happy to give it class time. I think the newness of it all helps students see the thought processes submerged in their writing, and to be come more thoughtful creators. But you have to be willing to put the class time in. And of course, there are a lot of classes where these sorts of bells and whistles might not be needed.

One other Scalar plus: not corporate. You have to create a login, but it’s with a non-profit (the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture). There are good privacy protections, and it’s not all ultimately about selling ourselves to ourselves. Scalar itself is open source, and they plan for it to be on multiple servers (and eventually on anyone’s server).

Lots more to say, but that’s a start. If I do create an assignment, I’ll post it here.

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