Gabii and UMP Digital Publishing

by Charles Watkinson on December 31, 2016

The University of Michigan Press exhibit at the Archaeological Institute of America / Society for Classical Studies joint Annual Meeting has for decades been a highlight of our year. It’s a great chance to exhibit the Press’s latest books, as well as distributed publications from distinguished partners such as the American Academy in Rome and the American Society of Papyrologists. And Dr. Ellen Bauerle, the senior acquiring editor for classics and archaeology, always has a full meeting schedule with current and prospective authors.

This year’s meeting in Toronto (January 5-8) will feature the usual spread of bestselling books (including Eric Adler’s much-awaited analysis of the discipline of classics) but also a rather unusual project which illustrates how the Press is embracing digital scholarship: A Mid-Republican House from Gabii is the first in a series of reports on the important excavations at Gabii, competitor with Rome for preeminance in Early Iron Age Italy. It is also one of our first publications to fully embrace the affordances of digital technologies; presenting interlinked 3D visualization, hyperlinked narrative, and a searchable dataset.

Gabii is an exciting site and has been dug in a thoughtful and innovative way that fully leverages computer technologies. The publication process has also been digitally-native, self-reflexively wrestling with some of the challenges that fully electronic publishing poses to an information environment which was designed for print books. How does one properly peer-review a publication where the medium is integral to the message? What additional clauses does a publishing contract need for a work that is iterative and poses complex preservation challenges? Which retail channels, optimized for distributing analog products, can service a project which has no print or downloadable ebook component (we still don’t know how to make a work like this available on Amazon)?

There have been decision-points at every stage of the production process for Gabii. One major question has been whether to charge for the title: On the one hand the culture of digital archaeology leans toward open access, appropriately for a discipline where an important activity is building regional syntheses on top of data from many different sites. On the other hand, the Press is expected to recoup a large proportion of its costs from sales and licensing income. If digital publications are the new norm, why would we apply a different standard to titles in the Gabii series than we would to their print cousins? Very few of the publishing costs of producing a new title are connected to manufacturing and distributing print versions. In the end, A Mid-Republican House from Gabii is a hybrid; the data is presented open access but the narrative (apart from the introduction) and 3D visualization require purchase (on an unlimited use basis for libraries, authenticated by IP range).

While the content is fixed (so it can be cited with confidence), the presentation of A Mid-Republican House from Gabii is marked as “beta.” That’s because we are continuing to iterate on the underlying platform to improve the user experience. For example, the 3D visualization currently does not work well in Google Chrome because of limitations to the proprietary viewer — we’re working to move this into an open source environment. And it is irritatingly slow to load. Thanks to support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the publication will be one of the first to move to our Fulcrum platform which will improve functionality.

We’re looking forward to getting your feedback so we can improve the publication and prepare for the next “volumes” in the Gabii series. And of course it would be a great addition to your library so please consider purchasing. If you are at the AIA/SCS meeting, please stop by the University of Michigan Press booth to trial the title and to pick up one of our lenticular postcards, an attempt to engage with another mundane question around digital publication: How does one market a 3D, e-only publication on a physical exhibit booth with limited internet connectivity . . .

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