Creating Dynamic Research Papers or What I Learned from Scalar.

          This past winter, I used Scalar to digitally publish my research on the 19th C British photographer Francis Frith and his street photographs of Cairo.  My interest in his photographs was inspired by the course The Sultan’s Palace taught by Dr. Nancy Um, Associate Professor of Art History, at Binghamton University.  We spent two of our sessions discussing the Fatimid Palace in Cairo and the ceremonies, court rituals, and practices associated with the palatial space in the city.  The discussions about these topics confirmed my interest in pursuing a close study of Cairo for my final research paper.  I intended to map Francis Frith’s trajectory through the city and compare his images of Cairo in the late 1800s to the present day.  I was hesitant to embark on this topic because the traditional twenty-five-page paper written on Microsoft Word did not feel like an adequate way to deliver this visually-driven research. 

          Dr. Um offered another way to format, write, and present my final research paper.  I could use Scalar: an open access platform for publishing scholarly and media intensive projects, developed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at the University of Southern California.  I attended one of Dr. Um’s Doing DAH (Doing Digital Art History) tutorial presentations about Scalar in which she encouraged students to use this platform to publish their class projects.  I learned that Scalar allows for the writer to provide a privileged position for images, videos, sound, web links, and much more within the framework of conventional scholarly research.  I decided to use Scalar for my final research paper and began to play around with the program.  Of course, as early research typically goes, I quickly discovered the complexity of Cairo’s layout and realized it would be challenging to reconstruct Frith’s many paths without having conducted fieldwork on the ground.  So, I modified my orientation and topic slightly, while still focusing on Frith’s experiences in and records of Cairo in the nineteenth century. 

          The paper I built on Scalar was entitled “The Art of Photography: Francis Frith’s Published Street Photographs (1856-1860.)”  Scalar allowed me to create chapters relating to coherent and bundled concepts, organize a dynamic, animated, table of contents, embed videos, and annotate images to highlight specific features that directly related to my argument.  My final project was considerably enhanced.  If you’re interested in learning more about this platform, I suggest you register for the site and start a book of your own.  Much of what I discovered about Scalar was learned during my twelve-week process of writing, uploading, and editing.  Here are the five most important things I learned while working on Scalar as a venue for publishing a class based project:

  • Upload the bulk of your media first.  Dr. Um suggested that I do this and it was the best advice about this project that I received.  Scalar offers options for multiple page and in text media layouts.  I experimented with the twenty different page layouts and used the image header, book splash, table of contents, and connections options in my project.  Other options include a page that can be built and coded to your needs, a Google Map to plot specific points, and a media gallery that can be organized with your selected media.  It was exciting to deploy a specific layout that could effectively organize my argument along spatial specifications, or temporal ones, or both.  The organization of the in-text media had the same effect on my writing; the way that Scalar allowed me to present the relationships between the various types of media that I used and the text that I generated helped to clarify my thoughts.  For example, sometimes I would hyperlink to an outside source and other times I would insert the image into the page and link to it directly.  Each page served as a portal through which I could consider my argument inside and outside of the text that I had composed.
  • Link everything.  Scalar allows you to generate links between the pages that you create and other pages in your project, but also to an outside source, or to a note.  Linking to one, two, or three of these things makes it very easy for the reader to gain access to additional sources.  For my project, I included direct references to articles on JSTOR and full texts that were digitized by the George Eastman House.  My project became much more dynamic, but also convincing, when the reader could see first-hand Francis Frith’s book in its published state alongside my text.  Linking to other pages in my project was fruitful for the development of my argument, too.  I could make connections to the arguments or media in other chapters with the simple addition of an in-text link.
  • Annotate your images.  Scalar allows you to annotate any uploaded media.  You can highlight specific parts of your image and include additional information about it directly in the annotation.  These annotations were crucial for some of my chapters.  Instead of asking the reader to look for the pyramids in the distance in one of Frith’s images, I could annotate this blurry feature with a clear superimposed white box, which I then linked to my point.  Keeping these annotations in line with my objectives made for a more streamlined look as well as concise support for my contentions.
  • Multiple Paths.  In a published book or article, an author can create a specific arc for the reader to follow.  Scalar challenges this singularity and allows for multiple reader arcs to occur at the same time.  For example, I created a traditional path that led the reader from the first page to the last.  I also bundled specific chapters together to make them part of another arc.  Paths can be created, added, or deleted and projects can be made public or private.  (My project is public right now but I will be making it private again soon to fine tune it some more.)  Yet, the ability to create multiple paths through your project can be confusing!  Overall, it made it glaringly obvious to me that research is a living and breathing thing.  Is any project ever complete?  What constitutes a complete work, anyway? 
  • Play away!  Scalar makes it easy to reinvigorate research.  I considered images, videos, sounds, fonts, backgrounds, and colors that could augment my arguments.  The icons on each individual page and on the dashboard, may seem foreign at first, but once you have used them a few times they become second nature.  I would recommend starting a new book and uploading images, creating annotations, and playing with the page functions just to get the hang of it.

          If I’m making Scalar sound glorious, easy, fun, and endlessly accessible, then I’m doing you a disservice.  I faced a few frustrations with the platform and often found myself hesitating on a certain function, then having to read the FAQ or the user manual.  These problems can obviously be avoided by those with more experience, but they were disruptions and inconveniences that slowed down my process of building, writing, and editing.  Here are my three biggest frustrations with Scalar, particularly for a project that had a firm deadline and fixed parameters of length and substance.

  • Scalar’s interface looks like Word Press.  This is, at first, a great thing.  Scalar is intuitive: finding the bold, and italics, font colors, and even special characters is easy.  My biggest challenge was remembering that I was writing a research paper for a graduate level class and not leaving a comment on a blog post.  (This might not be a concern for someone who is more accustomed to working with these types of interfaces.)  My solution was to write in Microsoft Word first and then deliver the text to Scalar, where I linked the images, created annotations, and organized my pages all with a consistently professional tone.
  • How do I link to my media multiple times in one page?   Art Historians often need to reference an artwork many times in any single text.  In Scalar, I would have to upload the same image again and again to make multiple references.  How do I upload one image but create multiple links to it throughout a given page?  I’m still reading the user manual to find a solution to this one.
  • Footnotes.  Footnotes.  Footnotes.  They are important to my discipline (as I’m sure they are to your discipline!) and Scalar doesn’t have an easy way to create the traditional footnote. They do have a pop-up note function, but it does not allow one to read or write notes in succession, nor does it provide a way to make multiple references to the same work in an organized manner.  This lack can be made up, in part, by the ability to include direct links to websites, journals, YouTube, etc. in place of a footnote.  I like these features and see their merits (see #2 above) but there are times when I do need a traditional footnote to provide extra information or a direct reference to a print source.  I ultimately decided to follow the way in which other Scalar users created footnotes by annotating like this: [1] and then linking the annotation to a new note.  It would be helpful if Scalar created a specific icon for this.  (Note: If you write in Microsoft Word and paste directly into Scalar it will transcribe your footnotes at the bottom of the page but the formatting isn’t pretty.)

          Despite these minor frustrations, Scalar is a platform that will make your research more interactive and dynamic.  After attending a brief Scalar tutorial, working with the platform over a few weeks, and reading the user manual closely, I have achieved proficiency with it, but also know how to find answers when I confront a challenge.  I’ve learned much about the platform since I began to use it in September and am excited to see what else it can do!  What originally began as a tool for an unsuccessful research idea turned into a platform that has transformed my thinking about how to connect my research with my writing.  Scalar has inspired me to prioritize visually driven arguments and to remember that all projects are living and mutable.  I would highly recommend that you try out Scalar if you’re looking for a way to experiment with your own research or if you’re interested in digital publishing.