This post is a generous contribution from Vincent W. J. van Gerven Oei, Co-Director of punctum books. Vincent is based in the Netherlands and attended the Paged Media initiative’s Paged.JS workshop in Brussels this week. punctum books recently announced adoption of Editoria, and are an active participant in the Coko community. Sincere thanks, Vincent!
It’s been a long time since I was in a coding environment. The last time in my life that I actively engaged with code was during high school writing small programs in C that would automate treasure generation for AD&D. Nerdy, but not particularly impressive. The last time I actually wrote HTML or CSS was for my personal websites in the late 90s and early 00s. Since then, the complexity of programming graphic user interfaces and the availability of wysiwyg platforms like WordPress made me too lazy to keep up with what happened in code land. So I got very excited when it made a new entrance in my life through my current professional field, publishing.
At independent, non-profit, scholar-led, and open-access publisher punctum books, my co-director Eileen Joy and I have recently been thinking a lot about the meaning of open access publishing not only in terms of availability to readership, but also in terms of accessibility and replicability for authors and publishers. How can we help developing models of open access publishing that are as open as possible, not only to read but also to publish? This has evolved into a conviction that ideally, all tools for open-access publishing would be open source. This is where our engagement with the Editoria project of the Coko Foundation comes from, as well as our pledge to be the first publisher to produce a scholarly publication on their platform.
This process, which for us started in earnest with the community meeting Coko organized in San Francisco on October 18, involves the beta testing all aspects of the platform, from the ingest of Word documents, to the way the Wax document editor behaves during copy-editing, reviewing, and proofreading phases, and finally how the HTML is rendered into a PDF that can be sent to the printer. With each aspect, different development teams are involved, and they all bring their own challenges and possibilities.
So when Paged Media and PrePostPrint, who were also present at the San Francisco community meeting, announced a workshop in Brussels to take apart Paged.js I jumped at the opportunity. Paged.js is the script that harnasses the font rendering capacities of the browser to output a print-ready, properly paginated, and typeset page. To accomplish this is no small feat, as it uses an environment built for the flexibility of web browsing to generate the well-proportioned rigidity of the printed page.
The far majority of attendees were designer-coders (everyone except me, in fact), well versed in the different programming environments in which Paged.js operates. So for me it was a bit of a deepdive — and initially rather intimidating. After installing the necessary software to run a server on my own computer (I apologize beforehand for butchering any terminology), I was able to download the HTML of the current punctum books project hosted in Editoria and run it locally through the automated typesetting script of Paged.js. This allowed me to experiment with different settings without the fear of messing up anything inside the Editoria environment. The idea was to produce a CSS definition that would come closest to our current lay-out standards for edited collections.
One of the workshop leaders, Julie Blanc, spent a couple of hours walking me patiently through the CSS files, explaining every single element and how it contributes to the accomplishment of this amazing feat: the minute control of all aspect of typesetting a page, not in proprietary (and expensive) software like InDesign, but through the tools offered by open standards and elegant definitions. It may not be the most intuitive way, and naturally most of the backend that I saw today will be invisible to future Editoria users, but there is an enormous emancipatory potential in actually understanding even a few superficial elements of how type behaves on a page, way below the glossy wysiwyg interfaces of DTP software.
At punctum books we pride ourselves in bringing back knowledge about publishing into the university: to educate and stimulate students and faculty to start their own publishing ventures, imprints, journals, book series, but also understand the internal dynamics of the scholarly publishing industry; the way in which it has become largely parasitic on academic pursuits, rather than being in a symbiotic and nourishing relation with it. Open-access publishing has the potential of returning agency where it has been lost — to outsourcing, privatization, or specialization. So too does open source software: one doesn’t need to understand the ins and outs of CSS to appreciate the detail with which font sizes, baselines, and margins interact on the level of the pixel. This engenders an understanding of type design that is perhaps most akin to the typesetter, composing a line of type by hand. Because of the ways the definitions work, aspects of proportion and the relation between white and interlinear spaces regain renewed importance, where DTP software is agnostic to such esthetic concerns. Perhaps this was the greatest insight that I gained today: that behind the layers of code and terminology that mostly went over my head there is an artisanality and appreciation for detail that is exciting and makes you look at the form of the printed page anew.