A few weeks ago, Sebastian Heath, one of the more thoughtful and long-standing participants in my corner of digital archaeology, and I got into a bit of a disagreement about the continued utility of the .pdf file type in digital publishing. Heath argued, to put words in his mouth, that other superior formats exist that are more flexible, dynamic, and suitable to a digital medium. Various forms of mark-up allow texts to be machine readable to present embedded data in a more accessible and useful way and enable text to be displayed in different formats on different machines by different software. In most ways, mark-up formats (I suppose we can call them) are better than the crusty old .pdf file type.
At the same time, as a small publisher and a regular consumer of .pdf files, there are certain advantages of this venerable file type. First, they are ubiquitous to the point that they don’t require any special software on most devices (with the exception of dedicated ebook readers which generally only like one kind of file), they don’t require an internet connection to read, and are archival. Second, they are baked into most publishers’ workflows because they represent a useful and easy intermediate step between digital layout and print publication. And finally, there is something tremendously familiar to the .pdf. It produces a document that looks like a page and works, on a basic level, like a book. Whatever its limitations from a technological standpoint, a .pdf is the digital expression of the codex page and there is something deeply comforting in that. They’re easy to cite, because they’re well-suited for page numbers and most pdf software allows readers to even annotate these files with highlights, underlines, and even skeuomorphic post-it notes that reinforce the idea that a pdf page is the digital equivalent of a page in a codex. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, the codex and the published book – whether in paper or digital form – is fundamental to the construction of academy and the reading public (as Laura Mandell has so clearly argued in her Breaking the Book (2015)). Between digital convenience (in both production and consumption) and familiarity, they represent a particularly useful hybrid type.
At the same time they do produce certain challenges. As my fall production schedule at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota gets underway, I’m facing some analogue anxieties as I think about producing my next batch of analogue/digital hybrids.
Epoiesen Annual. Earlier this month, I agreed to work with Shawn Graham and his team to produce an annual print (and probably pdf) volume from the content of his new journal Epoiesen. He sent along a bunch of markdown files that I had to then figure out how to convert to something that can be easily ingested into InDesign where I do layout. This ended up being fairly simple using Pandoc, but now I’m also confronted with the challenge of designing a page to accommodate the the complexities of a markdown document including hyperlinks (which will function perfectly well in a pdf, but not necessarily in a paper book!). In particular how will I keep the page uncluttered while displaying hyperlinks as well as marking each article with its own DOI and license?
Secret 3D Project. So I have a slowly developing, “top secret,” 3D project that will involve embedding 3D archaeological objects in pdf documents using the 3D pdf capabilities. This allows for a small press like mine to disseminate 3D content in a tidy and familiar package. Unlike recent efforts to publish archaeological objects in 3D, this project will embrace the hybrid nature of the pdf by retaining the traditional format of the codex while at the same time introducing more dynamic data. Like some earlier efforts at producing a linked pdf version of a traditional archaeological monograph, the pdf version will have links to both higher resolution 3D models and their complete digital associated metadata, but the pdf will also serve as a truly portable, standalone book that can be used independently of a broadband internet connection. At the same time, I’ve been urging the authors to consider a paper version of this digital book. Obviously the paper version will not include 3D content, but it will take the concept of digital hybridity a step further by working to develop the paper side of digital hybridity in a more seamless way.
Codex. As a template for this kind of hybridity, I’ve been working with Micah Bloom on a dynamic multimedia publication project that involves a digital book, video, and a trade paperback. One of the little cosmetic challenges that he and I have faced is that many stable URIs are not aesthetically attractive or humanly readable. In the case of Open Context URIs for example, they look like this: https://opencontext.org/subjects/3ECE8972-C306-4D6C-329E-7B606EE178BF. This will be less than optimal to use outside of a purely digital context. As the address behind a link, for example, it won’t matter that the URI runs 50 characters, but in a print book, this is an awkward address in a footnote or in in-text citation. One alternative, that we used in Mobilizing the Past, is QR codes, but from an aesthetic and formatting perspective, these are always a bit less than ideal. They tend to be clunky, are no more humanly readable than a massive URI, and require a device with an installed QR code reader to direct the audience to a website (and these readers are less common on laptops and more common on mobile devices, but many of the data-rich pages that a reader might want to view are probably best viewed on a laptop.) There isn’t a simple solution to this issue, but it does, to my mind, reinforce certain challenges that face various kinds of hybrid publications that seek to move the reader from the world of print and the page (whether digital or paper) to the more fluid space of the web.
It goes without saying that we’re in a liminal space in the history of paper and digital media. The codex and the printed page (whether digitally or physically rendered) continue to play an important role in academic communication. Our citation systems, design language and aesthetics, technologies, publishing workflows, and even – as I have observed before – reading preferences (which still favor paper books or rather more linear and “orthodox” engagements with texts) are embedded in the construction and persistent utility of the codex and the page while at the same time, there are legitimate pressures literally pulling the book (and the publishing industry) apart. Navigating these pressures remains, for my little press, the greatest challenge in contributing to the construction of a sustainable alternative model of publishing.