Digital Publishing in Analog

The featured image for this post care of the Audrey Alexandra Brown Collection at UVic. Digitization by Jana Millar Usiskin. - See more at:

Bob Nicholson, a historian of nineteenth-century popular culture, identifies his introduction to The Times Digital Archive as the instant he crossed the Rubicon into the world of academia. In "Digital Detectives: Rediscovering the Scholar Adventurer", he narrates the excitement he felt when he discovered that he could ceaselessly trawl through terabytes of uncharted history, and perhaps be paid to do it. In his discussion, he nods to Richard Altick, suggesting that being introduced to The Times Digital Archive revived the “scholar adventurer” that had been stomped out of him during his undergraduate courses, in which instructors accepted the read-and-repeat model for scholarly analysis: well-supported but bland, uninventive arguments in lieu of original or creative scholarship. For Nicholson, digital archives provided the opportunity to include primary archival material in his scholarly projects, which in turn fostered exploration and play, not to mention ways of bridging the gap between researcher, audience, and archive.

At a time when academia is becoming increasingly invested in all things digital, and experts have given analog publications a grim prognosis, Kathleen Fitzpatrick refuses to blankly accept projections heralding the impending “death” of the print monograph. Rather, she understands print as forcefully "undead" in the face of obsolescence. In Planned Obsolescence, she optimistically insists that print’s "undeadness" prompts scholars to "consider the work that the book is and isn’t doing for us, the ways that it remains vibrant and vital, and the ways that it has become undead, haunting the living from beyond the grave" (Fitzpatrick 7). While, in response to this week's survey question about new insights into digital publishing, it is tempting to engage in one of the many debates surrounding the future of the book, my aim is not to muse on the ontology of print or prophesize its passing. Instead, I would like to respond to Fitzpatrick’s mandate that scholars—whether they plan to publish in digital or print—think critically about the composition and publication choices they are making, with attention to how print and digital media recursively relate. Put differently, I want to talk about how digital publishing allows us to do more with historical materials and our memory institutions, to use new mechanisms to publish analog perspectives.

Recently, I have been testing the affordances of Scalar, an open-access, open-source platform for multimodal composition and publication for my work in the Maker Lab in the Humanities at the University of Victoria. After exploring what the Scalar team showcases on their website, I have found that Scalar-driven scholarship is rife with media of a particular variety. For example, "Freedom's Ring," is a compelling versioning and visualization of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In addition to contrasting the written and performed versions of King's speech, it embeds facsimiles of documents, photographs, political posters, and newspapers, as well as interviews, video, and audio recordings into its dynamic interface, all of which are tied to the iconic March on Washington as well as historical questions of social justice. While "Freedom's Ring" cannot literally bring the material archive along with its crumbling documents, dust, and hidden surprises into the reader's hands, it does help readers engage as closely as possible with the artifacts of cultural history. More importantly, it renders the material aspects of history as prominent components of scholarly communication and simultaneously does away with the disillusionment that Nicholson references in his article.

Importantly, though, I have learned that a media-rich aesthetic does not undercut so-called "monomodal" approaches to communication. True, platforms like Scalar afford some visually stimulating publications, especially through their data visualization features, but dynamic media does not simply imbue scholarship with some extra flair, some scholarly communication version of "put a bird on it." As a whole, these media correspond with a range of primary, archival resources for research. In fact, the whiz bang effects and compelling visualizations afforded by the Scalar platform may not ultimately be what makes it interesting to most scholars. Perhaps paradoxically, "going digital" with Scalar demands—to borrow from the theme of the 2013 Digital Humanities Forum at the University of Kansas—a "return to the material" that simultaneously relies upon and reinvents the stuff of analog holdings and pre-digital history. Instead of pointing audiences to collections or only referencing resources in the stacks, many Scalar projects draw audiences closer to the fabric of history and the materiality of the historical record. They do more than merely re-present the archive at a remove; they reanimate it.

In this sense digital publishing is central to the trajectories of our memory institutions and their analog materials, not a threat to them. Archives across North America and around the world are developing digitization initiatives that ensure the long-term preservation of cultural materials, while promoting a more "immersive" or "interactive" experience for their audiences. But what good are these initiatives if they are not interpreted, if they remain cached in some hitherto dusty, little-trodden corner of the Internet?

Let us not forget that digital publishing exists largely for its audiences. As digital scholarly publishing becomes more prevalent, it incites a multimodal and often audience-centered focus in scholars’ work that should inspire more experimentation with analog materials. In the coming months I look forward to thinking more deeply about the implications of digital publishing, and working with my colleagues in the Maker Lab, where projects—like Kits for Cultural HistoryJon Johnson and Nina Belojevic's circuit-bending work, and Jana Millar Usiskin's Scalar book on Canadian poet Audrey Alexandra Brown—take innovative approaches to scholarship by highlighting material history in ways that hitherto remain relatively untapped. Above all, I believe it is important that the efficacy of our work (through its rendering of our engagement with primary sources) becomes an ongoing consideration.

With so many options for digital publishing available, I'll conclude with this question for you: when incorporating material history and the historical record into our publications, how else might we inspire original scholarship and defy disillusionment?


Belojevic, Nina. “Looking at Games through Circuit Bending.” Maker Lab in the Humanities. University of Victoria. 3 October 2013. Web. 8 October, 2013. Retrieved from:

Bissell, Evan. "Freedom's Ring." Web. 9 October, 2013. Retrieved from:

Canada. Library and Archives Canada. News. "Library and Archives Canada and partner on digitization, online publication of millions of images from archival microfilm collection." [Ottawa:] Library and Archives Canada, August 2013. Web. 16 October, 2013. Retrieved from:

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. MediaCommons, 2009. Web. Retrieved from:

Johnson, Jonathan. "Building an SNES 'Glitch Controller'." Maker Lab in the Humanities. University of Victoria. 29 August, 2013. Web. 8 October, 2013. Retrieved from:

Macpherson, Shaun. “Sayers and Turkel Awarded SSHRC Grant.” Maker Lab in the Humanities. University of Victoria. 16 September, 2013. Web. 8 October, 2013. Retrieved from:

Millar Usiskin, Jana. "The Audrey Alexandra Brown Exhibit." Maker Lab in the Humanities. University of Victoria. 2 September, 2012. Web. 8 October, 2013. Retrieved from:

Nicholson, Bob. "Digital Detectives: Rediscovering the Scholar Adventurer." Victorian Periodicals Review. 45.2 (2012). 215-223. Print. 

"Portlandia: Put a Bird on it." Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 14 September, 2011. Web. 17 October, 2013. 

"Return to the Material Conference." Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. The University of Kansas. 14 September, 2013. Web. 18 October, 2013.

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