Publab — toward a standard for web publications

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.

what is PubLab?

PubLab is a toolset – not a platform – to enable the creation of web publications, as defined by the W3C.

what is a web publication?

A web publication is a set of content organized into a whole that can be read through a standard web browser.
According to the definition formulated by the W3C, such publications:

  • take full advantage of the capabilities of the Open Web Platform (the Internet)
  • can operate both online and offline
  • can comply with accessibility rules
  • can be linked to other content on the Internet
  • can be annotated / commented on

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 both the reader’s and creator’s perspective it produces a set of serious constraints:

  • e-pubs 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 between apps). What is more, many applications are bound to a specific class of devices, or worse – to devices of one specific vendor.
  • the reading experience of these “books” cannot be designed, because it is the app that decides on the reading experience – as a result, all digital books look the same, which is frustrating both for readers (boredom!), and 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: in the bus we read on our smartphone, at home we might switch to a tablet, and look up videos while discovering new contexts, while in the car we change to an audiobook format, 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.

This is why, at least as we understand it, the W3C defines web publishing as “a vision of the future of digital publishing.”

our stack

  • our publications are progressive web apps (PWA)
  • these apps are in fact static web pages – they are composed of pure html + css, with an addition of javascript
  • 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 and their projects, such as the Thoth metadata exchange system or the work of the Open Book Collective. -> ?

our benchmark publications

further PubLab publications, as well as experimental publication formats produced by the vnLab, are on the way!

the PubLab Collective

In November and December 2022, we organized a public seminar, “Digital Publications Today”, 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!