Reviewed June 2014
Justin Schell, Digital Humanities Specialist
University of Minnesota Libraries

Image source: ScalarScalar is a free and open-source multimedia publishing platform designed by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC) and housed at the University of Southern California with other contributing scholars and designers.

While built for long-form academic writing, the platform is flexible enough that it can be used for many different publishing purposes. Scalar’s ability to host not only textual but also visual, aural, and multimedia elements make it an attractive option for artists and scholars seeking a platform to unite these media. Further, this platform has built-in software to create visualizations and annotations: a boon to those interested in dabbling in digital humanities or other multimodal scholarship forms but who may lack the skills to build their own visualizations.

Image source: Scalar

Two key elements make the information architecture of a Scalar “book” (how they refer to online publications). The first is that it allows authors to create non-linear narratives through the use of “paths.” Everything in Scalar is considered a “page,” and these pages can be built and organized in different paths, allowing for different argument styles and different ways that an audience can read the publication. You can also annotate text and media as well as create visualizations of these different narrative structures.

Image source: Scalar

Secondly, Scalar’s encourages embedded media by incorporating semantic web concepts at the very heart of its architecture, including its use of RDF (Resource Description Framework) triples as the basis for all its metadata. In doing so, the platform offers an opportunity to build users’ digital literacy skills, including aspects of digital preservation and what kinds of repositories offer persistent storage and access. The ANVC has partnered with a number of repositories, including Critical Commons, Internet Archive, and the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library for seamless embedding of content from their servers. Hosting from commercial sites like YouTube, Vimeo, as well as personal servers and institutional repositories is also available.

Image source: Scalar

One of Scalar’s best features is its appeal to novices and experts alike. Those with little design or programming experience can easily use the off-the-shelf platform while still taking advantage of Scalar’s core features. In addition, users can incorporate custom CSS and JavaScript code on a single page or over an entire book. More advanced users can use Scalar’s API (application programming interface) to create highly interactive and immersive projects. Finally, bothlive and recorded webinars and a robust help page and user’s guide can help you get started on your own project, and Scalar’s developers were quick to respond with assistance when I encountered difficulties.

There are some challenges to using Scalar. Getting accustomed to the flat hierarchy of Scalar’s page-based architecture may seem foreign to users lacking web design experience. Furthermore, while it is possible to host material on Scalar’s servers, uploads are limited to 2MB, which encourages authors to make use of external media repositories. More broadly, as with any digital publication, loss of content is a possibility: earlier this year, Scalar experienced a major server crash and much of the material hosted on Scalar’s servers was lost (another reason to host on outside servers).

There are many platforms for scholars seeking a different way to represent their work. While some of these are also scholarly minded (Omeka), they have neither the navigational flexibility (in the case of a non-customized Omeka) nor the encouragement of archival rigor and good digital preservation standards (WordPress or Drupal) built into Scalar. It should be considered as an important resource for a range of scholarly and creative projects. A full listing of projects, from highly-customized and elaborate projects to simple linear narratives are available on Scalar’s website.