Art history and architecture professors have long taught out of textbooks and held forth in journal articles with the caveat that to truly appreciate a painting or a building, you must see it with your own eyes. Scaled-down, two-dimensional renderings on a printed page simply do not do them justice.
That may still be true. But the Society of Architectural Historians has developed a new platform for its online journal that it hopes will close the gap between reading about important architectural examples and experiencing them.
The society -- along with its publishing partners, the University of California Press and JSTOR -- today unveiled a new platform for the online version of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians , which it built through a series of grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The online version, dubbed JSAH Online, will support presentation methods -- such as video, virtual modeling and digital mapping -- that academics have employed for some time, but could show off only in venues with the capacity to handle to multimedia exhibitions, such as live demonstrations and museum installations.
For example: The inaugural issue of JSAH Online features, among other articles, a piece about funeral processions in the Roman Forum, accompanied by multimedia components such as a 3-D layout of the forum,superimposed on a Google Earth map, where readers can toggle a timeline icon to show how the forum evolved over several centuries. The possibilities allowed by an online text-cum-multimedia journal go even further, says Hilary Ballon, associate vice chancellor for New York University at Abu Dhabi and former editor of the journal. Programmers, she notes, are able to script simulations that would let readers “walk through” historical sites such as the forum.
Over the last decade, online versions of academic journals have become not only a standard part of the subscription package, but in some cases have surpassed their print counterparts as the preferred form of delivery. But few journals have taken advantage of the Web’s capacity for embedding rich multimedia content that can make reading the articles a more vivid experience, says Ballon.
“If you’re making an argument about how the ancient Roman Forum was experienced, there would be no way for you to share that because there is no form of publication where you could show pieces of your 3-D model,” she says, noting that digital humanities scholars are increasingly utilizing multimedia storytelling tools to describe phenomena in ways that exceed the limitations of words and simple images.
“You could post it on a Web site, but that’s not a publication, that’s a Web site,” Ballon adds. “[JSAH Online] brings it into the framework of scholarly communication.… It used to be the only way you could see it is if you went to see them present it at a conference.”
JSAH Online took its cues from a 2006 article  by Ballon and her colleague Mariet Westermann, provost of NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, in which the authors noted that “E-publishing programs have not emerged and taken advantage of the field’s rapidly growing sophistication in the use of digital images and electronic research techniques” -- a sluggishness that threatened to harm the discipline as publishers began shifting away from monographs and investing in digital. Ballon was put in charge of supervising the development of the new platform in conjunction with ARTStor, the sister organization to JSTOR, the digital journal repository.
JSAH Online, which the society is making available only to its members this year (it will sell independent subscriptions beginning in 2011), is intended to encourage scholars to explore the use of digital storytelling tools while nudging publishers to renovate their digital journals and e-textbooks to support those tools, says Pauline Saliga, executive director of the society. And she believes the JSAH Online's influence won't be limited to architectural history.
“I think this development is going to really impact a lot of disciplines,” Saliga says, citing music history and anthropology as examples. “A lot of societies and publishers were waiting for somebody to solve this problem,” she says. “We’ve solved the problem.… Now they can adapt it for their own purposes.”