Scalar is an online scholarly publishing platform that allows you to build and publish a site with rigorous metadata, media, and a booklike format. Scalar’s front-end structure is designed around paths – sequences of pages that the writer can use to encourage the reader to view the site in a particular order. Paths can be as linear or as twisty as you would like, and they give a large amount of control over where the reader should be directed next.
On the back end, Scalar’s drafting interface resembles WordPress’, with a text editor, different options for embedding media and creating links, and an HTML editor. In addition, Scalar features a relationships editor for adding data to your page about how it relates to other pages – e.g., paths and tags.
Scalar’s greatest strengths may be its abilities to handle media (both displaying it and handling its metadata) and to create complex navigational structures. When we used it at IrlH to create the web companion to Lisa Brooks’ book Our Beloved Kin, we knew that we would be building a site with a lot of media, and we found that Scalar allowed us to easily build pages that were media-heavy but that looked balanced with the text. Scalar’s ability to handle the metadata of its media was also crucial, as we were displaying historical documents that needed archival attribution, images that needed description boxes, and maps that needed legends.
While working on Our Beloved Kin, we also found that Scalar’s path structure was particularly well-suited to the project. The branching, nonlinear narrative form that many Indigenous authors employ in their writing and storytelling was a key influence on Brooks’ work, and we wanted that nonlinearity and the rhizomatic nature of the history to come across in the website as well. In Scalar, we were able to use paths to build a branching structure that feels like an almost physical wandering. The paths provide focus and guidance, yet choice, while we also used hyperlinks between pages to demonstrate the connectivity, the rhizomes, between different paths through the site. The site became like its own network of trails or of roots.
However, Scalar’s distinctive structure also presented limitations to the Our Beloved Kin project when we attempted to customize the navigation of the site. When we attempted to put anchor tags between pages in the source code, for example, we realized that the way Scalar loads its pages was breaking our tags. In this way, and in a number of others, Scalar’s emphasis on its unique structure made it inflexible and difficult to work with. Its front end visual interface is very difficult to modify away from its default visual mode, with its distinctive header, menu options, button styles, and navigation options. Scalar does its singular structure very well, but really it is only feasible for that one particular structure.
All things considered, I think this tweet sums up a lot of my feelings very well.
Potential for Complexity 70/100 – It loses points here for the difficulty of modifying the structure and interface of the site.
Availability of Support – 85/100
Ease of Use: 90/100 – when attempting to use the site at a fairly basic level. The WordPress-like interface goes a long way!
Quality of Finished Projects 85/100 – this skews higher when the project is aligned very well with the vision of Scalar’s structure and aesthetic, as with Our Beloved Kin.
Overall rating 80/100