Plague Water for Everyone! How open-source digital publishing tools can organize and amplify

Has your museum been circling the idea of digital publishing but remains unsure of how to approach it or which project to feature? Ours was too–until we took the plunge by marrying a promising platform to a complex, multi-partner project that didn't fit our existing publishing channels. The digital publication ""Alcohol’s Empire: Distilled Spirits in the 1700s Atlantic World,"" built using a beta version of the Getty’s Quire publishing tool, was a joint effort of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Wangensteen Historical Library at the University of Minnesota, and Minneapolis’ Tattersall Distilling. Created as a stand-alone publication to present academic research, it contains a collection of scholarly essays on the histories of distilled spirits in Europe and the Americas. But it was also conceived as an audience-friendly complement to a museum exhibition and a series of public events, and it includes video documentation of the project plus adaptations of historic drink recipes–like plague water–developed by Tattersall’s head distiller. This presentation provides an inside look at how we created the publication, what roadblocks we encountered, how integrating a digital publishing component helped structure and amplify a research initiative, and what we consider to be the project's return on investment.


Unknown Speaker 00:00
Welcome everybody to plague water for everyone how open source digital publishing can organize and amplify multi partner research projects. I'm Alex board a lot, content strategist and media.

Unknown Speaker 00:12
And I'm Chris, their designer. How's the sound? Can

Unknown Speaker 00:15
you all hear us? Luckily, it's a pretty intimate space. So great, well, so we are going to talk about a digital publication that we created in choir on a kind of a fun topic. 18th century distillation culture in American culture, in the Atlantic world, and the title of our publication, sorry, I'm getting a text is alcohols Empire distilled spirits in the 1700s. Atlantic world. This is a multi partner research project involving three partners, including the museum, and it was basically a emergence of an effort to take some 17th 18th and early 19th century, both handwritten and printed recipes that were medicinal in origin. And that were the precursors to today's cocktails, and kind of revive them, bring them into the 21st century, and then create some scholarly research around that and tie that in some events with a lot of our partners to share our kind of research results with the broader public. We have, if you want to follow along, by looking at the publication on your smartphones, just just aim your camera at the QR code up there. And that should take you directly to the publication.

Unknown Speaker 01:42
Oh, hang on. There's some folks. It's also there's also a QR code on the recipe cards if you have a cocktail recipe card out there. Although that probably won't take you to the title page, it'll probably take you to the recipe page.

Unknown Speaker 01:56
All right. Okay, so we're gonna kind of walk through what it was like to why we chose to do a digital publication why we chose choir, what the process actually was like of building a digital publication, some of the advantages that we saw in terms of distribution, and then ultimately, some kind of lessons learned that hopefully will apply to some of your work as well, if you're if you're curious. Okay, so oops, that didn't work. Work, too. Well. There we go. Okay, we're on the right slide. So, as I said, this is a three partner research project. We were one of the partners, the Minneapolis Institute of Art. And our stake in it was that we have 15 historic interiors or period rooms, we've been going through a process of reviving them, making them more engaging to our public. And at the time that we launched this research initiative with our partners, we had two rooms that were interpreted, basically along the lines of 18th century drinking culture, one in Paris, and one in the new world in Providence, Rhode Island, to be exact. Our partner number two was the pre modern food lab at the University of Minnesota. This is a really fun group. As you can imagine a really fun group of faculty who are looking at early recipe and food and food culture and trying to recreate old recipes. And basically through the process of cooking old food, get a better sense of kind of the foodways. With a pre modern world. The the kind of primary resource partner of that is the wagon scene, Historical Library. This is a history of medicine library. And they have kind of incredible primary resources on on recipes, and in our case, we were interested in kind of distilling culture. And they have wonderful handwritten recipes like the one you see here for wine bitters, as well as printed pamphlets, basically, primarily for the use of home remedies. And apothecaries. Given that this is kind of originally, like a medicinal venture.

Unknown Speaker 04:05
Our third partner was Tattersall distilling in Minneapolis. And they were brought on because they have artisanal knowledge in sourcing exotic strange gradients, as well as figuring out which ones of them are now known to be poisonous and need to be substituted with something else. They were also the only one of the partners who could legally distill alcohol so we, we needed this is Bentley, our head distiller an absolutely wonderful human being and his tabletop still, which he jerry rigged with parts ordered from Amazon and he would use this to perfect both his technique, timing and ratios of ingredients before sort of scaling his recipes up. Sort of you can see that the pot still is sort of still inherent in the bulb mechanism there.

Unknown Speaker 05:03
So that's, that's a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Haha. But it was true, you know, and the kind of the strength of the partnership was also the thing which made it you know, the most that gave it the most potential kind of go awry. You know, we had partners from kind of very different kind of industries, with different approaches and different objectives. And we made the decision pretty early on, you know, actually, in the previous session, we were talking about guerrilla tactics, right? It was anybody in that session? Yeah, so one of them was a Trojan horse, this idea of hitching, you know, a pet project or a passionate idea, to a to an existing project. And that's essentially what we did here. We, Chris and I have been kind of circling choir and thinking about its potential for a long time, talking to Craig on the phone a lot, and other people. And, and this seems like an absolutely wonderful opportunity to try out a digital digital publication for some reasons that I'll get into in a second. But, but it turned out to be a pretty precious decision, because it did serve ultimately creating a publication served essentially, as a way to kind of project manage this, you know, kind of wild and wooly research initiative that we had developed, it gave it some shape and some some parameters that we could put around, it also enforced some, a greater level of transparency, it forced us to have conversations with our partners that, you know, we didn't necessarily expect to have at the outset, but that really helped us clarify, you know, roles, responsibilities, timelines, and, and so on. And so, yeah, so surprisingly enough, a, you know, publication project turned out to be exactly what we needed to, to kind of project manage this, this whole initiative, as well as publish the results.

Unknown Speaker 06:43
So we had the three partners working together, doing lots of research, which involves de drinking, which was awesome. Here are three of the cocktails, which came out of the research, milk punch, which literally starts with milk sounds terrible, it was actually quite good, refreshing, in a way. So we had, the photographs were shot, the video was being produced, and the essays were sort of being written. And so it was time to start the publication. Why digital, it was a good fit for many reasons. The first of which was we had zero budget for print publication, we only had a small budget for video, which we used, went over budget, sorry about that. Speed, we had a very short timeline, to get this project done, the content was being written while I was both learning the platform and building the publication. So we had to be very quick, on our feet. Choir is updatable. And this was super, super important. We didn't know it at the time. But we had early interest from the New York Times in our project, you know, cocktails are kind of all the rage right now. And we were able to respond immediately with a fully functioning beautiful looking draft URL that we could send to them so that they could get into their publication, knowing that we had lots of gaps to fill in later, to actually complete the project. Also, it's expandable, we had a potential phase two, which involved some some of the food like pot pigeon pie, and all kinds of odd historical foods, which could be a phase two that we could be added to the publication later. And it was an excellent way to present not only the research findings, but also the process of the research itself.

Unknown Speaker 08:41
So what made kind of what made quite an attractive option, you know, for us, we quickly realized that kind of as Chris just alluded to the, you know, the digital planning of the digital publication could serve as with a kind of hub for research activity, as well as an ultimately a kind of container for the for the products. And, you know, dealing with the partners that that we had, you know, one coming from academia and other being, you know, that essentially the distillation industry, you know, needless to say, very different communication styles, very different expectations for what the final product should have, you know, ranging from writing that should be published along kind of accepted academic publishing norms to people who were very uncomfortable with writing and really wanted to just kind of demonstrate what they do practically speaking, and then, you know, talk in a video interview, kind of what their passion points are. So, you know, digital publishing, and in this case, choir was able to accommodate those different standards and norms and in one in one packaged piece of content, you know, additionally, this was not an extension of any partners website, it was a freestanding kind of a neutral thing, which was quite important for this project. We could all kind of equally share ownership of both the process and the product at the end and then finally, You know, we knew very early on who our kind of core audience was for this. And we had built in mechanisms by which we would reach them, public programs, owned media, and so on. And having a kind of discreet, bounded, highly portable, kind of content package. So digital publication is really allowed us to very efficiently distribute this publication to those who want to read it.

Unknown Speaker 10:30
So some of the benefits of choir first free, open source, wonderful, it's responsive, if those of you who are looking at it on smartphone, you'll see that it's just really terrific. It's responsive to screen size. It's customizable, which as a designer, of course, I wanted to get under the hood and tweak the templates. Shout out to Greg for lots of phone support there, we were able to put our font in there so that it looks very much like a media publication. The collaborative workflow was very attractive, oh, I forgot that this was a video. Fine. The collaborative workflow was very appealing to us. I'll talk a little bit more about that in a bit. Another benefit was that we were able to stress test our internal capacity, what kind of expertise was needed, how big of a team what kind of members needed to be on the team? And then we also wanted to explore applicability. Is this a platform that will work for other types of publications that media puts out? Create once published in multiple formats, it's always been the Holy Grail and quarter seem to deliver on that. And then lastly, my evil plan being in design and editorial. We have tons of projects that come through requesting print with no attached budget. So the default tends to be a PDF. I have two projects. I'm just completing one and I've one on deck that I'm doing in choir from other departments that have now seen what choir can do toolkits. handbooks, I mean, less certainly less glamorous, but the functionality in the distribution than the update ability. Once people see it, they want it.

Unknown Speaker 12:17
Okay, so we've talked a lot about kind of why choir, why did a publication, let's just kind of, kind of go through it a pretty fast clip what it actually looks like. So this is, you know, a title page with a table of contents. If you click on introduction, that takes you to a collection of scholarly essays written by a curator from our museum, as well as a curator from the Wolfenstein library. It also contains documentation of the research process, photos of day drinking, and that sort of thing. We're able to incorporate video, as I mentioned before, we've got a longer form video that includes kind of process and B roll of the distillery, as well as interviews with the founders. And with Bentley, the shorter video, which apparently is called a tasty video, it is, apparently is called tasty video, which we actually created largely for owned media for social, but with the idea that would also go into the publication as well. So something that can find to homes, the actual recipes themselves, both the original recipes, and they're kind of updated or modified versions, and you know, kind of a short historical essay about each one. And then finally, the stuff that you know, you'd expect to see in a kind of academic publication, things like, catch up with my notes here, annotated biographies, bibliographies of primary sources with links out to the catalog record in the University of Minnesota's library catalog, citation information, the permanent URL, and the revision history. So, again, something that made our academic partners feel, you know, very secure in devoting time to this project, they knew that then they could put this towards their departments later on. And also, we believe, provide some greater sense of, of confidence in other users who might want to cite this for their own for their own writing.

Unknown Speaker 14:15
Ah, two really important features. The build once feature which we it's so important, we I was involved in the project a couple of years ago, three or four years ago, actually, that was built. We did 12 issues of an interactive magazine that was so much fun, so much original content on a proprietary platform. That is all gone. It's it's no longer assessable it's all broken apart. We never wanted to get into that situation again. So choir is this project will always be around as long as the internet exists. It's findable to durable, searchable, it's infinitely updatable and most importantly, you can it's an online In publication, you can make an ebook, you can make a PDF, and you can print on demand. But along the way, there were some surprises. This was one of the bigger ones. What, where's my wiziwig as a designer, this is the interface I had to get used to. Choir is not a single tool. But rather, it's a network of things that sort of work together a lot of the terms that I had to get used to and functions Pandoc, markdown GitHub, I didn't know what any of those things were. But I have no special skill I learned all of them sort of the documentation actually was not was so in Midland form, so but it's getting so much better. This is an example of the interface that I use. It's a text editor called atom, there are many of them out there. And if you look closely, there's actually a little bit of code in there as well. So a little bit of coding language is helpful. There's a side by side comparison, this is like the most wonderful thing ever, because my WYSIWYG is back. On the left is the text editor I work in, I make edits to both content and style over there. And on the right is my live web preview. So my, the styles and edits are immediately available on on the web browser window. So I'm working in both Windows simultaneously. And it's just a terrific way to work, it was easy to get used to. Second really, really interesting feature was the workflow I created. This is a very simplified version of it. But I created this for myself while I was learning choir, because I didn't, I understood the steps but not exactly in what order they went in. So that was not very helpful. It starts in a very comfortable place a Word document. But then it quickly gets kind of crazy. And I want to focus on this sort of messy section here, which is a really powerful feature in choir. And it is where the real time collaboration works. Each each sort of circle is represents a user or branch. And that user has a an exact, exact replica of the master document. And so those users just work in that same interface I did, where you've got the text editor on the left and your window browser on the right, and they they work, they're making their edits, all separately. And git keeps track have this through version control. So there's, there's no destruction in this process, nothing is overwritten, or lost ever. And at any point, any user can say I'm ready for review, the owner of the project can review, review the edits, reconcile the differences. And then when satisfied with all of that, merge it into the master document, and you repeat this process until you're ready to publish.

Unknown Speaker 18:07
Great, so that's kind of look under the hood, in terms of distribution. You know, as I said, at the top of this presentation, we have a very clear sense of who our audience would be who our readers would be. And we had built into this kind of whole initiative, various kind of touch points and channels by which we could connect readers to the publication itself. So I won't dwell too long on this. But you know, one of those was, you know, in gallery signage, we did do a small exhibition on the History Club called beer before liquor is the history of Brewing and Distilling, based upon our collection. And you know, after getting a pardon the pun, but you know, a taste of that, then they could opt into using the QR code, the the larger scale publication. And so the QR code really kind of became our friend and all of this, it was the mechanism by which we really drew traffic to the publication, live events, we had a really great tasting at Tattersall, introducing the public to these historic recipes and cocktails made from them. And many, many cars, recipe cards that I handed out kind of to you before, before we start the presentation, as well as other signage, again, just was a way of pushing people to the publication. You know, owned media. So again, this is a partnership of three different organizations, all with their own social media shops. And having, you know, a really limited kind of toolkit that we would all kind of use was really helpful mentioned the tasty video before. You know, it was basically that and a link to the publication in the context of pushing the events that allowed us to coordinate really amplify a very straightforward and simple message. So that was hugely effective. And then for earned media kind of the same situation our you know, we have a wonderful PR Our team at the museum, Tattersall has a contract PR group they work with yours in Minnesota less so. But again, we were all using kind of we're all drunk from the same toolkit. So, you know, as our individual PR teams had different relationships with different media outlets, whether it be New York Times, or the Star Tribune, which is our local paper, we were basically able to have clarity and consistency of messaging. You know, regardless of who was talking to whom, and that proved to be, you know, really, really valuable.

Unknown Speaker 20:34
I do have to own up to a little bit of loneliness during the project. However, that wonderful messy diagram is aspirational. In our case, because I was the team building the publication, the short timeframe just did not allow for bringing curators and editors on board and up to speed. I was no expert at that point myself anyway. So the the review process became a little bit cumbersome, because we would literally have to kind of sit side by side on my computer. But the good thing was that I was able to send, you know, our partners were remote, and I was able to send a URL to all of them live working functioning URL looks just like what you're looking at on your phones, and they could review them separately, sort of take their time. And then we would kind of get together and sort of more manually reconcile the differences. I look forward to actually having editors and writers and designers all in on that collaborative workflow. But that is something Alex knows the curators better than I do. That is something our institution will really have to grapple with. And they'll have to get used to kind of a new online environment, but the the advantages are massive, if we can do it. And

Unknown Speaker 21:57
I guess that being said, you know, we had to try a different alternative approach for this one. And it actually worked really well. So you know, I It's flexible enough that I think, I think you can probably accommodate different workflows and different levels of familiarity and comfort with some of these technologies. So so some some final thoughts about choir and digital publishing? What what does this platform seem to lend it to outside of, you know, things that we know the Getty and other organizations have have tried in the past with kind of online spec scholarly catalogs. I think as as, as alcohols Empire shows, it's actually really good at both documenting process and product for these research initiatives. And so when it when there are these, these types of sprawling initiatives, perhaps with multiple partners, or just simply internal, but you know, that that touch upon many different divisions or departments, and there's a kind of a call for some sort of encapsulation at the end, perhaps for archival purposes, choirs kind of interesting option for that. And it's reassuring to think that, you know, again, it will remain kind of together, unchanging for the duration, as opposed to say, a website, which might, which might change over time. And you've kind of alluded to some different approaches to, or different alternatives within kind of internal facing audiences. Yeah,

Unknown Speaker 23:27
I was, I was a little nervous to call Greg at the, at the Getty and say, you know, I know that you meant this for our catalogs, but we've got this sort of more down and dirty project that would really sing with this platform. And they were very welcoming said, Absolutely. And it it really just be thinking way beyond our catalogs, think about all the projects that flow through a design and editorial department, and how much they could benefit from the update ability searchability, you know, the print on demand, the PDF, I mean, it's there, really, there's a lot of potential, and I think the more people find out about it internally, the hopefully we'll be able to do more,

Unknown Speaker 24:12
you know, staff handbooks, that sort of thing. So you know, true, truly internal documents, but thinking about how how this platform could be leveraged for even those those things. You know, one of the things that I continue to stress for this publication is that, you know, it's a very kind of specific audience, at least kind of the core audience is fairly specific. And that's often the case, right, with the types of content that museums can produce. You know, there's a relatively small potential readership and so then the cost benefit analysis of well, you know, do we do we publish this, you know, on paper? No, because we, you know, unless you're the Getty, you know, we can't we can't we can't justify putting, you know, these these funds behind it. You know what I mean? Not to say that there's publishing is free far from it. I mean, we actually did a case study on this, which is available on our website, which kind of roughly kind of back of the envelope as the number of hours that Chris and one of our collaborators, Diane, Richard is an editor took and it was about 150 hours, I think it was a lot of time

Unknown Speaker 25:15
is that that's smart. Okay, so

Unknown Speaker 25:17
more than that, you know, not to say that there aren't any costs associated with digital publishing there are, but I think one of the nice one of the, hopefully, one of the future opportunities is as the skill sets develop, the barrier to publishing will actually get lower. And so some things like, you know, conference proceedings, other types of, you know, museum, Bolton's things which have kind of fallen by the wayside in terms of print publishing, can be revived. And I think that's going to be incredibly important in terms of, yeah, a greater diversity of writers and a greater diversity of, of, of academic knowledge being put out there and discoverable in the public sphere. And in terms of distribution, we kind of knew exactly who we wanted to reach in this publication, it was very easy. We used our existing channels, very effective. But as we all know, you know, our social media teams, they move on to different things. So what happens to this publication now that the, you know, the bright laser, white focus of social media has kind of passed off of it? Well, you know, luckily, we can put it into WorldCat. You know, we can we can add it to, you know, library databases, where it's very discoverable by people who, you know, are different are not members of the general public, but our researchers who know what they're looking for. And this allows them to find it. And then finally, I think, kind of on that note of discoverability, and lower barriers to publication, I think that ultimately, this will, and we're already seeing it, you know, this will strengthen just the sort of the knowledge ecosystem that exists online. More sizeable authoritative sources for Wikipedia. So, you know, I think everybody stands to benefit. And that's, I think, all we have.

Unknown Speaker 26:55
That's all we have. So here. If there are any questions, we'd be happy to answer them. Or you can find us later. Yes, yeah. Yeah, I know. We thought they were dead.

Unknown Speaker 27:17
On the exhibition side, talk about track usage in the gallery. You're a designer putting a QR code on the wall.

Unknown Speaker 27:25
I know.

Unknown Speaker 27:29
Just want to hear you talk kind of about that. Because obviously, we've got lots of ways that you're reaching potential audiences, but as a content delivery tool, I

Unknown Speaker 27:36
think it's interesting. It's just quick. It's just a quick. Yeah. Yeah. It's just no more scrolling, clicking, searching by a word. It's just a click. And now with the new, you know, the OS, I don't know. Now, your camp, you didn't you needed a QR reader. Yeah, now you don't, it's all built in, it just knows exactly where to go. And if you can make them as a designer, you can make them really, really small, and they still work. Great. So I'm over it, it's fine.

Unknown Speaker 28:11
So one thing that we have to admit is that we committed museum malpractice, we didn't actually set up analytics groups for this. So we actually don't know how many downloads we got. But we we learned from our mistakes at EMEA. And we now are doing a couple of trials with QR codes serving up content and the galleries for which we are, you know, tracking. Some of these have only been up for a couple of weeks now. So there's kind of nothing really to report yet. We're trying for example, we're we're testing whether we're providing both a QR code and shortened URL to content. And so we're tracking how many people actually take us up on the offer to get content to the galleries that way and which method they prefer whether typing in a URL or just aiming the camera phone. So there'll be something that we can report on it next year as MCN perhaps, yes.

Unknown Speaker 29:06
Graphic design perspective, are there any limitations that you're particularly frustrating, even the template itself? Of course, of course, but I'm sitting here. And I can tell you that four years ago, when I was publishing this fabulous magazine, that was so fun, and I could make it look exactly like I wanted to and no one can see it anymore. There is nothing more sad than that. And choir has built in customizability. So I can change color or I can change. I haven't been able to Change Layout too terribly much because that requires more coding skill. But with more coding skill, you acquire more options for customizability and I was So I was pretty amazed by what what they had already built. And even if you do none, no customizability, the templates themselves are clean, functional. There. They look nice, no issues. One thing I do want to mention just going back to analytics, we opted to host our publication in GitHub. And you have to go through our alrighty people say that you have to do something special to make those analytics work. If it were hosted on our website, we would the traffic would have been analyzed from the get go. So just pay attention if you're doing this for your hosting and to set up the analytics from the get go. Because they told me to our it, people wanted it that way. And actually, because we were planning on updating this, it's just easier to just have it be up there and update through GitHub. Thanks, everyone. Thank

Unknown Speaker 31:03
you so much. Thank you