Publab – toward the future of reading
(and a standard for web publications)
What is PubLab?
PubLab is a toolset – not a platform – to enable the creation of web publications, as defined by the W3C.
Why web publications in the first place?
Today, a digital publication in the established form of an e-book (in EPUB and derivative formats) is different from a website – both ideologically and technologically. It follows the idea of book as object that can be put on shelf rather than the ideas, and possibilities, of the Open Web Platform. From the point of view of the publishing industry this makes sense, because it only slightly shifts the way business is done, but from the reader’s and creator’s perspective it produces a set of serious constraints:
- Epubs need separate apps to read the publications, creating additional complexity – you have to research and choose your app: which one feels best, which can synchronize your notes across devices (and not many can), and when you have chosen, you are effectively locked to the application (because there is no way to transfer your highlights and notes)
- The reading experience of these books cannot be designed (it is the app that decides on the reading experience) – as a result, all digital books look the same, which is frustrating for designers, because today’s web allows for fantastic control of typography & layout
- E-books can’t take advantage of the possibilities of the contemporary web: audiovisual content, advanced interactions, custom audio (i.e. audiobook functionality)
Reading is a sensuous experience
All those who emphasize that it is important for them to read a book in its printed form emphasize the sensousness of the reading experience. This sensouousness is related to the texture and smell of the paper, typeface, graphic design, etc. None of this is provided by modern digital publications.
More so, reading today is multimodal: we read – often the same thing – on different devices, in different contexts, we change to audiobook format when driving, look up videos while discovering new contexts etc. The question that arises is not only about what an optimal digital reading experience is today, but also how reading itself is changing as a result of the impact of the internet.
The challenge is to find a form of reading experience that would be relevant to contemporary ways of interacting with cultural content. Which, in turn, is increasingly hybrid, less text-dependent.
The future of reading
We believe that web publishing is the future of both reading and visual literacy. At the vnLab Interactive Narratives Studio we have been working on a set of tools that would allow us to create contemporary digital publications in the full sense of the word. We see value in combining the traditional model of binding content (giving it coherence through the common “frame,” of an autonomous publication) with the accessibility, addressability and interconnectedness of the Internet.
PubLab an attempt to create not only an efficient, green and future-oriented technology stack, but also a contemporary, sensousous reading experience. Thus, it is as much about technology as it is about UX and design. We put all our designs through tests to see how our proposed solutions interact with the audience, whether they seem readable to them, and whether they interfere with reading immersion. The quality of the graphic design is key for us.
- our publications are progressive web apps (PWA)
- at the stage of preparation of the publication, we separate form and content: we treat the content of the book as its source code, which we “compile” with our tools into the final form of the book
- the content marked up with the markdown language is our source code – we are working on extending the syntax to include multimedia elements (images, sliders, galleries, video, objects, embeds)
- using an external API – Hypothesis – we were able to add device-agnostic annotation features to our stack. Hypothesis is not yet ready for the general user, but it is the most developed web annotation tool available today
It is necessary not only to comply with the W3C guidelines or to be aware of similar projects, but above all to take advantage of the developing infrastructure for metadata exchange that is necessary for this new type of publication to find its way into library catalogs and their search engines. Here a key reference point is COPIM (https://www.copim.ac.uk/) and their projects, such as the Thoth metadata exchange system (https://thoth.pub/) or the work of the Open Book Collective. -> 🛫
The PubLab Collective
In November and December, we organized a public seminar dedicated to web publications at the Krytyka Polityczna think tank in Warsaw, Poland. Out of the seminar, the PubLab Collective arose. Contact us if you are interested!