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Workshop Report: “Choosing Your Online Platform: A Crash Course in Scalar”

Early in October I attended a workshop presented by Dr. William D. Fenton, Director of Research and Public Programs at the Library Company of Philadelphia, on “Choosing Your Online Platform: A Crash Course in Scalar”.  Sponsored by the PublicsLab and the GC Digital Initiatives, the workshop was hosted by Dr. Stacy Hartman, Director of the PublicsLab. The workshop offered attendees a wealth of hard-earned lessons Dr. Fenton has accumulated over five years of designing, directing, and maintaining the Scalar-powered digital scholarship project Digital Paxton. As a digital collection, critical edition, and teaching platform built on Scalar, Digital Paxton is an immersive and aesthetically state-of-the-art experience of an 18th century pamphlet war about “a little-known massacre” in 1763 in which “a mob of settlers from Paxtang Township murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.” Beyond being a case study of Scalar and offering a comparison with other platforms, the workshop unraveled critical issues and questions about the value and role of digital projects and the digital humanities. Many of the topics we have discussed in our class surfaced through Dr. Fenton’s introduction to Scalar in the context of Digital Paxton.

Evaluating the Need for a Digital Project

Dr. Fenton began the workshop with an illuminating discussion of the elements of a high level needs assessment, which consisted of questions for scholars to consider before beginning a digital project:

  1. What is the relationship of your digital project to your scholarship?
    Dr. Fenton recommended that there be at least a “symbiotic” relationship between the digital project and your scholarship.
  2. What problem does your digital project address?
    In the case of Digital Paxton, creating an online digital website offered a number of benefits including: offering access to a set of artifacts whose last edition was published in 1957 and which suffers from issues such as a restrictive price; an ambiguous distinction between pamphlets, engravings, and political cartoons; many artifacts cited, clipped, or reprinted without context; only a subset of the approximately 71 pamphlets are available via the Internet while others are available only through expensive archival services; finding artifacts is limited by cumbersome search methods that offer little to no “sense of contingency, exchange, and interplay” or of “the gaps between the interpretations” surrounding the massacre, which make up some of the principle analytical goals of the scholarship.
  3. Who is (are) your audience(s)?
    Dr. Fenton suggested that should the audience be limited to a small group, such as a group of fellow scholars or a dissertation committee, platforms such as WordPress or Manifold may offer a better fit in terms of time and effort needed to complete the work and the affordances for online feedback and discussion. In the case of Digital Paxton the audience was envisioned to include more broadly all interested scholars, educators, their students, and members of the public.
  4. How will you measure success?
    Dr. Fenton envisioned the digital project as a way to: “surface materials that give voice to the ‘backcountry’ or borderlands”; “provide researchers access to scans and transcriptions”; “foreground the latest scholarship and pedagogy”; “tell multiple stores about and through the Paxton corpus”; “integrate new materials as identified or as they become available”.  As limitations or critical watch outs, Dr. Fenton identified the problem of a distorted understanding arising from the lack of records; the risk of reproducing colonial biases, assumptions, and erasures; the inability of artifacts to present alternative imaginaries; the need to offer a plurality of perspectives, some of which recenter narratives around the nation of the “Conestoga, their resilience, and their central role in the history of colonial Pennsylvania”.
  5. How much time are you willing to invest?
    Dr. Fenton offered the aphorism digital archivists commonly attribute to digital projects: “free as in puppies not as in beer”. Digital projects absorb any and all time made available. As a result, an estimate of time required to achieve a good enough result in relation to other commitments is essential to the success of the project.
  6. When is your project complete?
    To avoid impinging on other commitments, Dr. Fenton recommended that  consideration be given to how the project might at a certain point be handed off  to an institution or be designed to run with sufficient degree of automated maintenance.
  7. Does your institution support a particular platform?
    A key consideration in the selection of a platform is the extent to which there is infrastructure support from your institution for the platform. Dr. Fenton worked with and received institutional infrastructure support from Fordham University and The Library Company of Philadelphia and sponsorship from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Comparing Platforms

Dr. Fenton offered a comparative analysis of Scalar with three other platforms: WordPress, Omeka, and Manifold. Each platform has different strengths that suit it for different goals of digital scholarship and community engagement.  All platforms are licensed under open source licenses with code repositories hosted on Github.

  1. WordPress, licensed under the GNU Public License, is a good choice in that it offers: free hosting via CUNY Commons; ease of use; great integration with plugins and themes; high customizability; and affordances for online communication. The codebase is built with PHP and Javascript and was first released in 2003.   Notable examples include: The PublicsLab, The CUNY Academic Commons, and Ghost River.
  2. Omeka, licensed under the GNU General Public License, is a good choice for curating images and collections and is popular with the GLAM community (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums). The platform is structured around objects and collections of objects with a considerable degree of customizability. The platform is sponsored by the Corporation for Digital Scholarship. The codebase is built with PHP and Javascript and was first released in 2008.  Notable examples include: The September 11 Digital Archive, Intemperance, and DIY History.
  3. Manifold, licensed under the Educational Community License version 2.0 (“ECL”) of the Apache 2.0 license, was established through the GC Digital Scholarship Lab.  It offers a state-of-the-art user experience based on rapid application development in Javascript and Ruby on Rails.  Manifold is a good choice for projects that benefit most from the transformation of a MS Word, Google Doc, or EPUB document into an online edition. Unlike Omeka and Scalar, Manifold is especially designed for online discourse and academic conversations through advanced annotation and commenting. Version v1.0.0-rc.1 of the codebase was released in March of 2018.  Notable examples include: Debates in the Digital Humanities, Metagaming, and Negro and the Nation.

Presenting Scalar

Dr. Fenton’s primary takeaway regarding Scalar is its effectiveness in the presentation of non-linear datasets and born-digital scholarship. The platform can be run as a paid hosted instance, a personally self-hosted instance, or an institutionally hosted instance. Artifacts are uploaded into a flat ontology and structured around objects and sequences of objects known as “paths”. Scalar’s data entities are modeled on the semantic web’s Resource Description Framework (RDF), which enables compatibility across  schemas. Scalar is a project of The Alliance for Networking Visual Culture with funding support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Licensed under the Educational Community License version 2.0 (“ECL”) of the Apache 2.0 license,  the codebase  was beta released in 2013. Notable examples include: A Photographic History of Oregon State University and Black Quotidian (offering a more custom coded landing page with several entry points).

Several distinguishing affordances of Scalar dovetail with the goals of Dr. Fenton’s scholarship including: the non-hierarchical structuring of navigation paths (inviting–or requiring–visitors to discover the content and meaning for themselves); path-making as narrative-making (offering visitors immersive and experiential understanding); multi-directional tagging (offering many bidirectional avenues for discovery); annotations and search options (offering full text transcriptions of the image artifacts and search capability across either titles and description or a full text search of all fields); and contexts as entry points (offering historical overviews and keyword essays as a part of the scholarly apparatus).

Scalar’s information architecture simulates the familiar table of contents metaphor. The table of contents is globally available upon entering the site from the standardized single entry point button on the landing page.  The latest version, 2.5.14, offers a rich media landing page.  For documentation, the University of Southern California hosts a user guide and an introduction built on the platform itself. 

Three limitations of the current version of the platform are: the level of web accessibility (the WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool currently reports a number of errors on the homepage of Digital Paxton); and customizability is currently achieved for the most part at the code level in Javascript and CSS; the number of 3rd party integrations lags behind other platforms.

Finally, Scalar supports annotation features used by Digital Paxton to enable students in classes to submit transcripts of the text residing in images. As an example of the pedagogical expansions of the website, the challenge of transcribing hand written letters and diaries draws students into the study of palaeography.

All in all, Scalar appears to be a significant step up from other platforms for the immersive experience at scale of digital artifacts and a multiplicity of contextual narratives. Assuming that the advantages of non-hierarchical sequences match the analytical and pedagogical goals of the project, Scalar would seem to be a better choice than Omeka. In my explorations of Digital Paxton I have been drawn into the world of colonial Pennsylvania in a way that I could not imagine possible with a book, whether print or digital, or even a museum. As I explore the significance of the tragic and traumatic events of of the massacre in 1763,  I am intrigued by Dr. Fenton’s theses that the manuscripts tell a different story compared to the printed records and that the massacre by the “Paxton Boys” together with propaganda war created a “template” for the subsequent dispossession of Native Americans from their lands through the terrorism and disinformation of white land hungry settlers and their allies. I look forward to considering Scalar as a platform and to exploring, both as a model and as history, the paths, contexts, and narratives Dr. Fenton has created through this well crafted and engrossing digital space. 

Additional insights and suggestions are available from Dr. Fenton’s slide deck presented at the workshop.