More on Codex: Books, Performance, and Archaeology

I was initially drawn to Micah Bloom’s Codex project because it combined two elements that have become more or less central to my life: books and archaeology. At our book launch event last Friday, I realized that Bloom’s project had even more in common with my interests than I had initially recognized. In a short presentation Bloom unpacked the process of developing both the Codex book and short films that came from his efforts to document the books scattered about the Minot landscape.

If you don’t know Micah Bloom’s Codex, do go and check it out now.

In a brief back-and-forth in Minot, I asked Micah if he was inspired by recent work in “archaeology of the contemporary world.” I was inspired to ask after he discussed the particular care that he and his team took to document the scattered books both in situ and to number, label, preserve, and photograph the collected books systematically. Moreover, his team donned hazmat type as you can see in this clip from his film, and approached each artifact with extraordinary care

He admitted that he wasn’t particular familiar with this frequently theoretical (or at least conceptually ambitious) branch of archaeological work. He was inspired, however, by various manuals and technical literature that he found on for dealing with toxic objects, biological waste (including bodies), and other potentially contaminated (and contaminating) detritus. In other words, he used technical literature as a guide to performing real archaeological fieldwork, not in order to produce a thoroughly and systematically documented record of the 2011 Minot flood, but capture the particular sanctity of the books left behind in its receding waters. Performing archaeological work demonstrated care.

Archaeologists like Michael Shanks have long recognized the confluence of archaeological work and performance, and, indeed, theater. Without delving too deeply into this inspiring, if complex set of ideas, I have always struggled a bit to understand the relationship between the superficiality of theater – that is the concession in theater that the actors and the audience both have to suspend disbelief and recognize the actors as acting their parts – and archaeological methods, which ideally guide actions even when no one is looking. This isn’t meant to denigrate the work of actors and the depth of the characters that they portray or the promote the idea of the archaeologist as a singularly and consistently principled practitioner (but I’m sure most of us say that we try to be). The desire to keep our scarps straight is not just a cosmetic act that reinforces the scientific (scientistical?) precision of our work, but a practical way to make the stratigraphic relationships between various depositional events more visible. An actor may embrace certain aspects of a character off the stage (perhaps as part of an approach inspired by method acting), but this is fundamentally secondary to role played on the stage. There is always a risk, then, in emphasizing the performative in archaeology that we succumb to the artificiality of the aesthetic and as Michael Shanks has realized “abstracted from what is being represented, removed in an escape from social and historical reality, from anonymous popular masses, from the messy vernacular human and natural detail…”

Micah’s work offers an intriguing complication to this risk. Not only did he document his work to bring order to the messy chaos of flood recovery speak to a particular moment in time (and an effort to resolve what must have been a pervasive feeling of disrupted existence), but he also documented the books themselves in ways that are not immediately visible in his published work. For example, he disclosed that he has photographs of hundreds of books in situ and once he and his team collected and documented them. He also has a database (technically a spreadsheet) of close to 800 books recovered, identified, photographed, and documented from his work. Unlike the public facing work of the film and book and installation, these aspects of the Codex project, like the method actors behind the scenes routine, remains out of sight (at least, for now). 

Since Micah’s presentation, I’ve been turning around in my head how to make at least some of this archive available. Whether this archive will produce new archaeological, historical, or cultural knowledge is difficult to say, but it does reveal the depth of Codex as a form of authentic archaeological engagement with the world. 

Pre-Order The Beast Today!!

This is turning into a pretty exciting month for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Last week, we released Micah Bloom’s Codex and today, we’re excited to announce our support for the pre-order campaign for The Beast produced by Ad Astra Comix and Dr. Patrick McCurdy, from the University of Ottawa. The Beast is a brilliantly illustrated and engaging story of two precariously employed millennials living in the heart of Canada’s oil country. 

Go and pre-order a copy today and watch this space for some exciting future developments! 

TheBeast Cover

This project continues The Digital Press’s commitment to the sustained study of petroculture in North America and we’re proud to place The Beast on the “Bakken bookshelf” alongside The Bakken Goes Boom! Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016), the most recent book from our friends at NDSU Press, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, and two new books in development from The Digital Press, a updated and expanded reprint of the 1958 Williston Report and, Voices of the Bakken, an expansive and immersive collection of interviews with residents of the Bakken oil patch in the 21st century boom.   

Go support this remarkable project, and, then, stay tuned for more about The Beast and a unique collaboration between Ad Astra Comix and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota!

The Digital Version of Codex is LIVE.

I’m super excited to announce that the digital version of Codex is (a)live now.

Go and download it!

Codex Tradebook Cover Cropped

This project feels like the most ambitious project that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has undertaken to date, but made possible through the generous and sustained collaboration with Micah Bloom, Marissa Dyke (his design intern), and the contributors and editors of the volume (including Dave Haeselin’s writing and editing class in the English Department).

The digital volume is beautiful, well-designed, and thought provoking.

And the work isn’t done, yet! We are almost ready to release the trade paperback version of the book and there is talk about a small, unnumbered, print run of the hardbound version. 

Finally, we’re doing a public release of Codex tomorrow at Minot State. 

Book poster as book

So stay tuned for more.

Codex final large book 3

Micah Bloom and Codex in Minot

If you’re in the Minot, North Dakota area, you should make a point to come and check out my presentation with Micah Bloom, the author of the very soon to be released book Codex from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Friday, November 3, at 12. I’ll be joining Micah and three contributors to the book, Bethany Andreasen, Ryan Stander, and Robert Kibler in Minot State University’s Aleshire Theater. 

I’m pretty excited to head out West, and while my visit with my colleagues at Minot State will be short, I’m looking forward to catching up with Ryan Stander, who worked with us one summer at Koutsopetria as our artist in residence. Unfortunately the online exhibit associated with Ryan’s ran out of funding here at UND, but I have the images and the essays associated with the project and still think about doing something with them.

Micah has been the consummate collaborator on the Codex project and has literally worked on every part of the project from the layout and design of the book to helping edit the essays and strategizing publicity for the event. In many ways, Codex was the ultimate example of cooperative publishing with students from David Haeselin’s writing and publishing class lending a hand in copy editing, Micah and his crew chipping in on layout, and my little outfit working on the production side of things.

So, please check out my talk on Friday!

Here’s the flyer:

Caraher Bloom Minot

And, if you’re still reading, do click this link.

Open Access Week Announcement: The Digital Press + Epoiesen

Each year, Open Access Week celebrates the work of authors and publishers who make their works available for free and open circulation. From its origins, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has worked to encourage open access publishing across its entire catalogue and seek out collaboration with likeminded authors and publishers.

For Open Access Week 2017, we are very pleased to announce our collaboration with Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology founded and edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. Epoiesen urges its contributors to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license to their works, but also recognizes that each author has the right to set the terms for their contributions.

The journal seeks “to document and valorize the scholarly creativity that underpins our representations of the past. Epoiesen is therefore a kind of witness to the implied knowledge of archaeologists, historians, and other professionals, academics and artists as it intersects with the sources about the past. It encourages engagement with the past that reaches beyond our traditional audience (ourselves).”

Epoiesen 🔊

Recent work in Epoiesen has included video games that explore academic publishing and the destruction of the past, thoughtful, experimental critiques of a weaponized social media, and transmedia engagement with archaeological knowledge making

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish an Epoiesen annual as a downloadable document and in a print-on-demand format for readers and institutions who prefer paper and to make the journal more portable and open to standard citation practices. 

Graham remarks, “The excitement and interest in Epoiesen has been gratifying. Clearly, there’s an appetite for engaging with history and archaeology that traditional venues are able to fill! I’m grateful to the Digital Press for this tremendous vote of confidence and look forward to working with them as Epoiesen continues to grow.”

William Caraher, the founder and publisher of The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, adds, “Working with someone like Shawn, the remarkably diverse content of his journal, and the outstanding editorial board and authors is a great opportunity to expand what the Digital Press does and to learn from a truly innovative project and team. Epoiesen is a great fit for The Digital Press in that it brings together open, academic publishing with new ways of thinking about archaeology, materiality, and the past.”

Hybridizing Paper

This is probably too grandiose a title for this blog post, but after my post last week, I realized that I had some odds and ends that I meant to include, but for various reasons did not. Most of these focus on the idea that the potential of digital media and digital books has tended to be set in opposition to paper books and traditional media. If hybridization occurred, as I proposed in my post last week, it tended to be in the creation of digital media that formally adopted some of the characteristics of paper books. This is best manifest in the continued currency of the PDF files as probably the most common and perhaps the most functionally useful way to circulate digital content. They look like a page, act like a book, yet are open to external hyperlinks, video, audio, and 3D content, and relatively seamless linear and nonlinear organization that does not compromise the basic structure of the page or the codex.

I’m more interested right now in the flip side of this situation. This past week a paper book that I wrote with Bret Weber has appeared from North Dakota State University Press. It is published only in paper, and as far as I know, there are no plans to make the book available in a digital format. As I’ve blogged on before, I have an interest in expanding the paper book to include both updates to the itineraries, but, more important, updates to the ideas present in the work. In effect, I want to wrap the book in a new context that allows the original paper volume to continue to stand as a unit, but can also offer new ways of thinking about it through updated research, reading, and thinking.

The desire to move from digital to paper and to digital again, I think is one of the intriguing challenges facing publishing these days. As I outlined with my new project in collaboration with the digital journal Epoiesen, establishing ties that link paper to digital content is both an aesthetic and practical challenge. 

It is interesting to note that there are some recent ventures in commercial publishing that have wrestled with the exact same issue. In my little corner of the world, for example, the watch blog Hodinkee recently published its first paper magazine. Carrying over many of the key aesthetic features from the blog, including the high quality color photography and genteel style, the magazine runs to $27.00. There are, of course, branding issues here that suggest that perhaps serve to distance the premium periodical from the more lowly blog while at the same time demonstrating a family resemblance.

My favorite audiophile blog, Parttime Audiophile, has recently initiated a similar venture with a downloadable .pdf called The Occasional. While this is a clever play on the “part-time” name, it sets itself apart with its higher production quality and its explicit print orientation, although at present, it is only available as a download. The presence of two page spreads, the organization of the text in difficult to read (and non-justified!) columns, and the absence of hyperlinks makes it more difficult to read as a digital document, but also clearly echoes the paper page. 

As I’m looking ahead to new ways to bring North Dakota Quarterly to a new and expanded audience, I’m likewise facing the challenge of integrating regular digital content appearing on our website with ab annual paper version.  

There are reasons, of course, for the persistence of paper. In the case of Hodinkee or (perhaps hinted at by The Occasional), there is a prestige associated with print even if it is digitally mediated. For upscale commodities like watches and high-end stereo equipment people expect a certain kind of luxury even in the media surrounding these products. My colleagues at NDQ have tended to emphasize the physicality of the paper book and the character of the final product as evidence for having MADE something. I admit that this feeling of making has carried over into my love of producing paper books as well. 

For academic work, there is another important and more practical aspect to producing paper that hybridizes with the digital. In academic culture it is still easier to cite paper (or paper-like) versions of books and article according to page numbers. Reviewers continue to prefer paper books – when given the option – and libraries remain better equipped to catalogue, preserver, and circulate print copies even as their book budgets continue to shrink. Paper copies, whether on the desk of an editor or on a library shelf, conform to certain institutional expectations for how knowledge looks physically. Of course, this might be a temporary or transitional stage in how knowledge looks and circulates as we come to terms with a more robust and complex digital future, but the massive history and continued ubiquity of printed media suggests that these paradigms will be slow to change.

All this is to say that one of key challenges facing publishing these days is not making digital less like paper, but making paper more like digital. There is a present need to create hybrid forms of paper media that push the boundaries of how the paper codex has traditionally functioned and to blur the lines between paper and digital. This under-appreciated and under-recognized form of hybridity will be part of what The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota explores.

Analogue Anxieties at a Digital Press

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: 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. 

Updates from The Digital Press

The last few weeks have been busy ones for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. We are in the process of negotiating a collaboration with the University of North Dakota’s venerable literary journal, North Dakota Quarterly, to see it become a more nimble and digital publication.

North Dakota Quarterly

We have also agreed to work with an innovative new digital journal of archaeology and material culture, Epoiesen, edited by Shawn Graham at Carleton University in Ottawa. These collaborative projects represent the core values of The Digital Press as they look to bridge the gap between traditional publication and innovation and embrace the best potential of digital tools to create new ways of sharing knowledge.   

Epoiesen and Updates from The Digital Press

We are also excited to report the ongoing success of our 2016 publication, Mobilizing the Past for the Digital Future: The Potential of Digital Archaeology edited by Erin Walcek Averett, Derek B. Counts, and Jody Michael Gordon. It has been cited across a wide range of academic journals Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage, Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, Journal of Archaeological Science, Open Archaeology, Internet Archaeology, The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and Advances in Archaeological Practice. Yesterday, a review appeared in the American Journal of Archaeology, the leading journal of Mediterranean archaeology in the U.S. The book has been out for less than a year!


I was also excited to see William Caraher’s and Kyle Conway’s edited volume The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota get cited in Rick Ruddell’s Oil, Gas, and Crime: The Dark Side of the Boom Town (2017) and a thoughtful article by Thomas S. Davis in English Language Notes titled “Anthropocene Insecurities: Extraction, Aesthetics, and the Bakken Oil Fields.”

Introducing The Bakken Goes Boom The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

We’re also hard at work on a range of other projects. We’ll have an update soon on the digital publication of Micah Bloom’s Codex. The limited, hardcover, print edition is already making its way out to cultural institutions, and the trade paperback is well into production. We’ve scheduled a book launch event at Minot State on November 5th and in the process of getting one schedule here at UND in the fall. Hopefully we can live stream these.

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Introducing Micah Bloom’s Codex

Traditionally, academic publishers fulfill several key steps in moving a manuscript to publication. Once they receive the manuscript, they coordinate peer review, offer editorial and even content suggestions, and perform copy edits, layout pages, and, most importantly, produce the final publication (before distributing and marketing this product from which they take a cut).

In other words, the publication process is creative, generative, and adds value, but also tends to be distinct from the process that generated the manuscript. In other words, a wall exists between author and publisher that helps establish publishing as separate from writing and to justify the role of publisher as playing an economically independent role in the process of knowledge creation. To be clear: this system works and has worked well for over a century. 

Codex final large book 3

In some cases, this wall is good, like when an author relies on a publisher to manage peer review or copy editing. In other cases, the wall is awkward like when the book is not just the end result of the author’s creative process or the vessel that allows the hard work of the manuscript to become manifest. When the book in totality is the product of a single creative vision that extends from the content of the book to its physical form, publishing draws upon earlier traditions of craft where authors and publishers were often interchangeable.

Codex final large book

This past year, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota has been working with Micah Bloom to bring his remarkable book, Codex, to a wider audience. The original version of the book was designed to complement an installation that focused on the destruction of books by the Minot flood of 2011. It featured a series of remarkable photographs of the aftermath of the flood that critically engaged how we consider the destruction of books as both intimate objects and disposable commodities. We worked with Micah to add nine critical essays that engage the books and his art in new ways. Micah then produced a book about books that integrated the new essays with his photographs in a unified design.

Codex final large book 4

We prepared 20, numbered, signed print versions that we will circulate to local institutions through the generous support of the North Dakota Humanities Council. We’re also going to release the book digitally under a CC-BY-ND license this fall. And because you can never have enough books in enough ways, we’re also going to produce a trade paperback for folks who want the experience of the paper book at a low price.

Codex final large book 6

It was thrilling to receive photographs of the book this week! Be sure to stay tuned for more on this project.

Codex final large book 9

Codex final large book 7

Codex final large book 10

Codex Final REAL COVER

The Digital Press on Longreads

While I’m settling into my summer research in Cyprus, I’m still thinking of some of my projects this spring. Some good news from my colleagues at The Digital Press.

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce that Josh Roiland’s story, “It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now” in David Haeselin’s edited volume, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997 (2017) has appeared on the iconic long-read internet site, Longreads, this week.

Go check it out, and if you like their work (and their support of a wide range web publishing), click the Support Us button and give them some support. At very least, click through to their page and support their mission by reading.

Or, click through to the Haunted by Waters page and download the book or buy it in paper!



It Was Like Nothing Else in My Life Up to Now