University of Michigan Press and Gabii Project Pioneer New Approach to Collaborative “Book” Publishing

by Charles Watkinson on September 27, 2017

The University of Michigan’s excavations of the Early- and Mid-Republican site of Gabii have over the last few years focused attention on the origins of urbanism and rise of Rome, as a successful competitor to the city only 15 miles to the east. Thanks to the leadership of Nicola Terrenato, Marcello Mogetta, and Rachel Opitz the project has also been a pioneer in the application of digital technologies, especially 3D photogrammetry. The Gabii team was thoughtful from the start of the project in envisioning how the application of new tools in field research might be best represented in the final publications, recognizing the potential of digital affordances to enrich the traditional presentation of archaeological discoveries – in large and expensive editions that poorly represent the richness or interlinked nature of the data and narrative.

The first title in the series of Gabii publications was published by the University of Michigan Press in December 2016. A Mid-Republican House from Gabii presents the discoveries from the so-called Tincu house, a nice example of domestic architecture from a crucial period in the urbanization of Italy. Users with different needs can approach the project in different ways; through a 3D interactive model, through a narrative hyperlinked text, and through a database of finds and contexts. The text is also presented in what is envisioned as a “multi-layered” way so that a reader looking for a general overview of the results can easily dip into the publication while a specialist can deep-dive into the details.

The idea of providing different levels of publication for different types of reader is not new in archaeological circles. A number of projects have published synthetic overview volumes, written for a more general reader, that appear alongside heavy single-vision works and specialist reports. But the idea of trying to combine multiple paths into a single “volume” is a product of electronic environment, where a “choose your own adventure” approach is a common feature of media ranging from digital games to government websites. The transition from the linearity of traditional scholarly writing to the modularity of a web text is not a simple one for authors, especially when the need to maintain credibility within the discipline also needs to be taken into account. It is also not a simple transition for a publisher, used to identifying the primary audience for a work early in the acquisitions process and then shaping the content specifically for them.

With these challenges in mind, a group of faculty collaborators from the University of Michigan applied in spring 2017 for a grant from the U-M’s Humanities Collaboratory initiative to investigate how successful A Mid-Republican House from Gabii had been in engaging its multiple intended audiences, and how it could improve. The project, carried out during May and June, involved five groups (consisting of faculty members in Classics, Information Science, and Writing Studies, and their graduate students) conducting different forms of user experience investigation. One team observed the interaction of specialist readers, another experimented with the publication as an undergraduate teaching tool, and a third conducted “guerilla testing” with visitors to campus museums. A fourth group did a rhetorical analysis of the writing while a fifth saw the web developer working on site in Italy with the excavators, exploring the interface between the accumulation of research data and its presentation.

The combined feedback from these interventions was rich and cohered around some common themes – the need for more contextualization, the challenges faced by readers entering the publication from multiple directions, the need for seamless linking forward and backward among the different elements. The Gabii project team and the University of Michigan Press are now collaborating to introduce a number of interface improvements that will be made available to all purchasers and users of A Mid-Republican House from Gabii as the publication migrates from its current “beta” presentation on the Press’s legacy DLXS platform to its final home on Fulcrum, the next-generation hosting environment being developed with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The experience of working collaboratively on designing an initial “beta” publication and then iterating based on user feedback to create a more robust “production” version is new to a book publisher, used to a more linear workflow based on stages such as “transmittal for production” and “release to warehouse” and fixed “editions” of books. However, in the case of a digital product that breaks new ground in the presentation of archaeological data, the process has proved essential in achieving the University of Michigan Press’s ultimate goal, which is to create the best possible vehicle for delivery of the scholarship to the desired reader.

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