Reading with Matthew K. Gold

mkgold-gc-15Before the holidays, I had the chance to chat with Manifold Co-PI Matthew K. Gold, who is Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities and Executive Officer of the M.A. Program in Liberal Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I have been lucky to work with Matt for a couple of years now, through seminars on digital humanities praxis and textual studies, on DH tool-building projects like DH Box, on the editorial collective of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, and with the digital fellows of the GC Digital Initiatives. His widespread commitment to textual scholarship and digital innovation, his seemingly tireless support of his students and digital experimentation, and his humility (which he may not even let me mention) never cease to amaze me. I have spent a lot of time discussing Manifold with Matt, but I was glad to get the chance to ask him more specifically about his personal motivations for developing a hybrid publishing platform. 

What matters most to you about Manifold? I think it’s the overall excellence of the user experience. Our goal is to create a platform that will rival the reading experience of a commercial site like Medium but that is free and open-source. I’m excited to see how various people will use it — certainly our primary audience of university presses, but also a wider set of authors and publishers of all types.

Cool. That sounds like a pretty noble mission to me. I’m also excited about our team — we have the University of Minnesota Press, which is doing exciting experimentation on both its editorial and production sides —  it’s a Press that’s willing to take risks with the way it thinks about the future of publishing. Working with a partner like that — and with Doug Armato and his team in particular — is a lot of fun.. And then we are lucky to be collaborating with Cast Iron Coding– Zach Davis and his team are extremely talented and very much aware of the latest trends in web development. Manifold won’t feel like a typical piece of academic technology, thanks to the work of Zach and his team.

What’s your ideal reading experience? For me, print is still most important as a reading experience. But I’m never satisfied when I buy a printed book from a bookstore and then “that’s it.” I can’t carry all of my books with me when I go on a trip, so I really want both print and digital at the point of purchase. For me, if I’m going to read a book of theory or criticism, I’m going to be reading it in print, but I also want to be able to easily pull it up on my laptop or phone when I’m traveling or just happen to think of it during a meeting with a student, or I’m doing some writing and I want to refer to it. I want the materiality of the print book, but for access and reference, the online version.

And Manifold is precisely about achieving that hybrid experience. So we are producing print books, but we are also creating web-based interactive texts that open up new collective and social reading experiences.

What are you reading now? I am reading (and loving) Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Somehow, reading about waves feels like the right thing in this post-election moment–an escape from politics but also a reminder of how to make our way among larger and sometimes brutal forces.

Who inspires your work? I tend to be inspired by my academic mentors. My first academic mentor was Robert D. Richardson, Jr., who is a biographer of Thoreau and Emerson (his biography of Emerson remains one of my favorite books). I’m still in awe of his erudition and research and writing skills. I’m also inspired on a daily level by my colleagues at the Graduate Center and across CUNY, especially by the students I work with.

After Matt answered all the questions, we had the chance to speak more broadly about Manifold and the features that specifically address readers’ needs. The design of the platform — from the icons, to commenting and annotation, to the reading interface — is the result of careful consideration by a team of careful readers. Moving forward, even as I share more about the creators of Manifold and the reading practices that influence its development, I will be adding a features series to outline the thinking that goes into the various components of Manifold.

Reading with Zach Davis

Zach Davis

Zach Davis

Last week, calling Portland from the Digital Scholarship Lab at the Graduate Center, I had the pleasure of speaking with Manifold’s lead developer, Zach Davis at Cast Iron Coding. Yet again, my attempts to record the call came to naught, but I will conjure some of the conversation from my notes.

Zach is Principal Chief Technologist at Cast Iron Coding. His previous CIC projects include sites for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Jersey Give-Back Guide (check out the animation on the “generosity generator”) and Debates in Digital Humanities, a collaboration with The University of Minnesota Press and Matt Gold that served as a prototype for the Manifold project.

Zach has been working steadily and seems rejuvenated by the team’s recent Portland meeting. Talking through the next steps and considerations about how university presses will be able to customize Manifold installations seems to have crystallized the work that everyone has been doing in exciting ways.

First, I asked Zach what matters most to him about Manifold. He noted the two most important things to him at this stage, made even more clear after the meeting.

  1. That Manifold is open and open source. Zach says, “it is a pleasure to work on software that has to be open source, where it’s written into the very project.”
  2. That they are building something that solves a problem for a good number of people. He recognizes the audience, but beyond Manifold’s immediate uses for the press, the software has the potential to serve an even wider segment.

After that we spoke about ideal reading experiences. While his habits have changed since the days when he was a Ph.D. student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, Zach says it’s “still a book most of the time. It depends on what kind of text. I don’t read theory and criticism the way I used to. For short forms, I will read on the web or my phone, but for reading, I still like the physical artifact.” We talked a bit about the different demands of different types of reading. When he was working on his dissertation, Zach categorized himself as a transcriber. He would cite passages as a way of thinking through the content. Now while working on Manifold, he imagines the sort of tools that would have facilitated this sort of reading. He says he also spent much of his academic life reading digital texts, which were often easier to track down. He thinks about the ways Manifold could simplify the lives of scholars.

What is he reading right now?

  1. A collection of Leonard Cohen poetry
  2. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

Both seem rather timely.

Lastly, I asked who inspires his work. Zach says lately he has been particularly inspired by the work of Dan Abramov, a JavaScript developer. He finds inspiration in Abramov’s career and particularly appreciates Abramov’s attitude about open source software and towards the community around his work. Now that he has transitioned to his developer role, he finds his book-world inspirations are much the same as they were ten years ago. He says he hopes he in any way resembles the thoughtful, careful, kind approach to work and students that he saw in Milton scholar and mentor Joseph Wittreich at the Graduate Center.

As the project moves on, I’m interested in the ways the underlying experience of the Manifold team influences the way they craft the reading experience.

Thanks, Zach!

Follow @zdavis

Reading with Susan Doerr

While the seismic ruptures of the election have unsettled the ground beneath us, it feels necessary to continue working on projects that look beyond the next four years, that address the possibility of connecting people through ideas and through constructive debate. Last week, in the midst of national turmoil, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Doerr, University of Minnesota Press Assistant Director, Digital Publishing and Operations. During our phone call, I asked Susan a number of questions about her thoughts on reading and the Manifold platform.

I started by asking Susan what matters most to her about Manifold. She talked about the process of collaborating with the Manifold team on writing the grant proposal, and thinking about publishing books in the browser. Susan believes the real revolution of an epub or pdf ebook is the speed of distribution — instant access for a reader. Susan said, “ebook reading devices are siloed — a reader is stuck in an app or device.” What the Manifold team wanted to do was “break free from that constraint. Ebooks today are replications of print — active media that don’t do much more than the print edition of a book. And we wanted to do more.”

Publishing a book in the browser allows it to be dynamic — vs static. The more they thought about it, the more opportunity they saw for readers to follow a project as it evolve because Manifold can publish a project iteratively, that is, in pieces over time.

We could transform the process of how the author might publish. We started our work with definitions: What is a version? What is an iteration? What is a resource? We broke from the word “book” and moved to the broader term “project,” which we define as a work that is a combination of texts and resources.

Susan noted that other publishing tools offer these features — but Manifold also aims to “create an efficient workflow process available to be replicated by other publishers.”

Next I asked, what’s your ideal reading experience? This one took a moment. Susan said she had no single answer. It all depends on “What is it that you’re reading for? Why are you coming to the text?” For leisure reading, Susan reads paperbacks or on her ebook reader. Reading for work, though–she’s a note taker–means reading reading parts of a work over time and marking up a text. Her reading demands “different interactions depending on why I’m reading this text. Reading for information, you want the apparatus for notes and asking questions and linking to other pieces.” For her, when reading for escapism she wants to lose herself in the story. Manifold is not meant to serve all the reasons you read, rather “it is addressing something specific. It’s not meant to be a panacea of all publishing.” Susan went on,

Print is a funny thing — we’re used to it historically being the solution for sharing and distributing published work. The book object — front cover, open it and read, turn the page, is familiar, and that medium for a mode of expressing text and images to share information is really sophisticated — it evolved over hundreds of years. Manifold is a baby — we’re developing its first version. A book, the object, meets so many needs — and we’ve had years to adapt it to meet so many needs — it feels perfect, but it may just be familiar.

When asked what she is reading now, Susan described a reading practice that spans formats. The books she reads circle around subjects she never studied in school, such as medieval central Asia. She is currently reading Empires of the Silk Road, by Christopher Beckwith, after finishing The Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr and Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World by Adrienne Mayor. She also listens to audiobooks of cultural histories while she paints; she just finished The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee, which she found after enjoying In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910, by Susan Roe. On her ebook reader, she says she reads mostly fiction — recently N. K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate.

For the last question — who inspires your work? — Susan had quite an inspiring list.

  • Other university presses. She mentioned frontrunner work of National Academies Press. She follows publishing evolution — how they are adapting practices, not just around issues of open access. She appreciates learning from what works for others and what doesn’t.
  • Librarians. She mentioned the conversations and collaborations of librarians and publishers at the Charleston Conference.
  • Authors. By watching and talking to authors on social media, she sees how they figure out how to self-publish and work with publishers.

Ultimately, she finds inspiration in the process of art making.

Art – the process of art-making, creating and making; manifesting ideas as a physical thing — into text, fiber — if you’re making an art object — I find that riveting — that process, seeing the evolution of ideas through a work of art. If I’m able to go read about the ideas behind the artist’s work it changes my engagement with the art. Music is the same — one day while listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue while in line at the bank in my car — I pulled out the pamphlet in the CD case and read about how the album was recorded, their process. It changed how I hear the music!

Throughout our conversation, I heard Susan’s excitement about the work she does and an attention to the ways she works and thinks. Susan gave me some good book recommendations, and we had the chance to discuss our hopes for scholarly communication and monographs. She generously shared her own experience, yet made clear that what matters most to her is serving her audience. A reassuring commitment in an unsteady time.

Thank you, Susan! 


Follow Susan @susanmpls.