by Joshua Piker
I’m delighted to have a chance to roll out a new iteration of Simon Newman’s article, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Escaped Slaves in Late Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Jamaica.” And I’m equally delighted to preview a new-and-improved new version that will appear on our new-and-improved OI Reader this spring.
Newman’s article was initially published on the OI Reader in June 2018. And if you’re keeping score at home, you’ve likely noticed that the Quarterly followed up on “Hidden in Plain Sight” by publishing a fair bit of digital history in 2019.
The January issue featured a six-essay review forum on Newman’s article, and July’s issue presented Molly O’Hagan Hardy’s article “Archives-Based Digital Projects in Early America,” the convener’s essay from the 2018 WMQ-EMSI workshop. October’s issue offered two distinct digital-centered projects: Sharon Block’s article, “#DigEarlyAm: Reflections on Digital Humanities and Early American Studies,” which grew out of a 2018 WMQ-UC-Irvine workshop; and Rachel Wheeler and Sarah Eyerly’s article, “Singing Box 331: Re-Sounding Eighteenth-Century Mohican Hymns from the Moravian Archives.” Wheeler and Eyerly’s article was published alongside a digital companion on the OI’s website that allows readers both to choose their own path through the article and to access its audio clips, videos, and images. A review forum on Wheeler and Eyerly’s article and the companion site will be published in July 2020’s issue.
Most of this content appeared in the pages of the journal, but Newman’s article was published digitally on the OI Reader, and we had hoped to do the same with the companion version of Wheeler and Eyerly’s article.
I say “hoped to” because, as you’ve likely noticed, the OI Reader app ceased working—was taken offline? went poof? flamed in? the term of art eludes me—this fall. Given that I had planned that the journal’s run of digitally-themed articles, forums, and workshops would serve as a sustained call for early Americanists to consider ways in which they themselves could engage with what Block labels as #DigEarlyAm, “Not what I had in mind” doesn’t begin to cover my reaction to the app’s demise.
If I did not expect to be confronting the problem of—my apologies in advance—appsolescence last fall, though, I and everyone else at the OI did expect that entering the world of digital publishing would require us to periodically deal with transformations in technology.
Publishing platforms change. That’s true in the print world, but most of those changes happen in ways that escape the attention of readers. E.g., as far as I can tell, not one reader noticed the subtle change in the paper used to print the journal’s cover that we made back in January 2019. Or to take a more consequential example, we hired a new typesetter and printer in the fall of 2014 with technical capacity to cut our costs associated with those tasks while shaving several weeks off each issue’s production schedule. Readers would’ve been unlikely to notice the change, however, unless they noticed their issues of the WMQ were now appearing on JSTOR and Muse a bit earlier.
Changes in digital platforms, though, tend to be more dramatic. In the case of the OI Reader app, Adobe will no longer support the platform that powered the app. Users who have already downloaded the app and related content, including Newman’s article, can still use that material. But we are not able to add new content. That meant, most concretely and immediately, that the platform that we envisioned as the home for the companion version of Wheeler and Eyerly’s article wasn’t available.
So, we’re changing platforms, first to a website and then—starting this spring—to a new, web-based app: OI Reader 2.0! Wheeler and Eyerly’s companion site has been available since November, and we just launched the site for Newman’s article.
This process is time-consuming and expensive because transferring an article from one platform to another is not quite as simple as clicking “install updates” on your laptop and going off to do the dishes and fold laundry for twenty minutes. Moreover, the specificity of the platforms involved means that Newman’s article does not look quite the same on the website as it did on the app, and some elements—such as pagination—may not look quite natural in the article’s new home. We are working to resolve those problems when we transfer the article to the new OI Reader app in a few months, but the OI is committed to ensuring that the content that it publishes remains accessible, and so making the website version—even with its infelicities—available now is worth doing.
Those infelicities are worth lingering over a bit because they are baked in—to a greater or lesser degree—to the process of scholarly digital publishing. That is true because this publishing is done digitally: technology will continue to change, and so projects designed with the possibilities of one platform will inevitably need to be reworked when that platform is no longer available or a better one is on the horizon. But it is also true because this publishing is scholarly.
We’re committed to maintaining aspects of scholarly publication that are critical to our field. So, for example, our articles on the OI Reader retain stable page numbers and content that corresponds—number by number, word for word—to the pages in the print, JSTOR, and Muse versions of the articles. That makes us Very Odd Ducks in the digital publishing world, and it means that we have some additional hurdles to clear when presenting early American history on a digital platform. But stable pagination is the raw material of historiographical conversation. So, in this instance as is many others, we’re working to bend the digital world to our requirements, not capitulating to its current norms.
All of this bending of worlds and remedying of infelicities is the price we pay for the dynamic, interactive content and the widespread dissemination that digital platforms permit. The resources that the OI and the WMQ have devoted to digital history in the last year alone are very concrete expressions of our belief in the transformative possibilities of digital scholarship for early American history. We are grateful to Adobe for their support in making the OI Reader a reality in the first place, and for continuing to work with us even as we knew we would need to transition to a new platform. Their expertise and generous enthusiasm will be an ongoing feature of the OI Reader as we head into its new iteration.
We also expect that OI Reader 2.0 will help the field more effectively realize those possibilities. The new version of the OI Reader will be accessible via your desktop computer as well as other devices and will allow us to create digital content more easily than before. It will also have a feature of particular use to all the Very Odd Ducks of #VastEarlyAmerica: accurate (and stable) citation information readily available for every word. Moreover, as the new OI Reader is built in WordPress, it should be more easily sustained and less subject to changes than the app. OI Reader 2.0 will also be visible to search engines, dramatically increasing the discoverability of Quarterly content. All of which is to say that, if everything works as planned, OI Reader 2.0 should be a valuable tool for both readers and authors.
We look forward to re-launching Newman’s and Wheeler and Eyerly’s articles on the new-model OI Reader in the next few months. At the same time, we will begin the process of converting 5+ years of WMQ articles from the old OI Reader format to the new one. All issues of the journal from July 2014—the first issue published on the app—forward will be available on OI Reader 2.0 in the not too distant future.
For now, though, the website version of Newman’s article is available for your reading and teaching pleasure. And if you haven’t had a chance to visit the companion site for Wheeler and Eyerly’s article, I urge you to do so, both for the strength of the article itself and for the chance to engage with their vision of what digital publishing allows early Americanists to accomplish. Like Newman before them, they are pointing us toward exciting new possibilities for historical research, scholarly communication, and public engagement.