Project: Two.Point.Oh – Giving a Public Face to MPub Graduate Work
Project: Cohort – An Approach to Responsive Web Design for SFU Publishing
On April 5th, students in the 2012 cohort of the Master of Publishing program made the final presentations for their PUB607 Publishing Technology Project course. And as with years past, the project groups—and the achievements they made—were considerable.
In the Project course, three groups of six students each work for six weeks on a piece of applied research and development. Past years’ projects have covered everything from data management to XML production to social media campaigns. This year’s groups were mostly web-oriented, but with three very different approaches.
Last week, MPub alum Jenna Newman and I met up in Ontario for the first major piece of archival research on my project on the untold story of digital innovation at Coach House Press in the 70s and 80s. The folks at the Coach House were connecting computers and phototypesetters back in 1974; pioneering Unix-based typesetting software by the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s were on the bleeding edge of Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML), the direct precursor to today’s XML. A poetry house, mind.
Our trip took us first to Ottawa, where we spent two days digging through the archives of the Canada Council for the Arts—likely Coach House Press’ primary source of capital in those days. We were digging for references to their early technological innovation in the grant applications of the day. While we found little direct mention of computers in the press Block Grant applications—not surprisingly—we did uncover some pretty interesting Explorations grants going back as far as 1973, involving partnerships with both visual artists and computer scientists from the U of Toronto. But even the Block Grant applications contained offhand mentions of the Press’ forays into the digital age, often in cheeky asides directed at the program officers. We got in a pint of the local stuff with the amazing @craigriggs while we were there too!
We flew in to Toronto on the Tuesday evening (via the astoundingly nice Porter Air) in time for Booknet Canada’s “Code Meet Print” event at the Pilot Tavern. Brian O’Leary was on stage, giving a reprise of his groundbreaking “Context First” talk, the Toronto digital literati all in the house.
Wednesday morning we began the first of three days of interviews with people connected with the early Coach House. Our first session was with Steve Izma, SysAdmin for Wilfred Laurier U Press and a founding member of the historic Dumont Press Graphix in Kitchener in the 60s and 70s as well as BTL Books in Toronto. Steve told us about the flourishing alternative press movement back in the day, and how multiple political and social agendas converged on the few typesetting and printing operations available: every movement had their own paper, and the Dumont collective served a wide variety of clients. In the 70s, the Dumont crew moved into computerized typesetting, paralleling some of the work done at the Coach House, and culminating in the 80s with a Unix-based toolchain that’s still entirely viable today (not to mention hundreds of times faster on modern hardware!)
We hit Booknet Canada briefly Weds morning, to talk about the fate of the BookCamp events on the west coast, muse about Tech Forum ‘12, and then head out for some lunch with some MPub royalty: Booknet’s @meghanmac and @julialikesbooks from LitDistCo.
Our afternoon was a bit of high-geek observance. We met with Henry Spencer, the man who long ago ran the seminal UTZoo Usenet node (at the U of T Zoology department), and who also contributed the modern Unix regular expression library. Henry’s UTZoo system served as an early Unix host for the Coach House (just a block and a half away), and later connected CHP to early Usenet. I asked Henry to autograph my 1st edition Perl Camel book (I didn’t have a copy of Managing Usenet, so the Camel book would have to do).
Thursday evening was a mammoth interview session with David Slocombe, the original “code meet print” guy. David was the key programmer at the Coach House in the 70s and 80s, founder of Softquad, SGML pioneer, and a legendary polymath. With David we dug into everything: origins of computer-driven phototypesetting, proto-Unix software engineering, Unix text processing, the emergence of generalized markup languages, not to mention David’s favourite science fiction and urban planning in Toronto. Fully six hours later, Jenna’s typing fingers ruined, her netbook’s battery on its last legs, and my brain turned to jelly, we had to call it quits.
A few hours of sleep later, we met Tim Inkster and Don McLeod for breakfast on Friday morning. Tim is the master printer at The Porcupine’s Quill, the fine-printing/literary house in Erin, Ontario which—back in 1983—was a major partner with the Coach House in a massive effort to bring networked Unix workstations in to Canadian literary presses. Don is publisher of The Devil’s Artisan, a journal that PQL produces. The Porcupine’s Quill still runs Unix-based typesetting to feed its 1970 Heidelberg KORD press, and turns out stunningly beautiful books. Tim’s been helpfully mining his hard drive for historic documents for us—he must have some of the longest-running digital archives in the country. He can tell some pretty crazy stories about the old days of CanLit, too.
We bumped into @ACCheng from the LRC on Bloor (I love that about Toronto!) and had a good chat with him about periodical publishing in the 21st century. In the early afternoon, we made our way over to bpNichol Lane to sit with Stan Bevington at the Coach House. Stan hosted us all afternoon, engaging in a wide-ranging conversation as we sat at the old coffee room table, lingered over his beloved Linotype machine, and wandered through the working museum that is the Coach House. Our conversation went well into the evening. We talked about the past and we talked about the future; about type design and about fishing in the Northwest Territories; about printing and about bicycling. He’s 68, but Stan comes across like 23 a good portion of the time!
Early on June 18, we headed back to Vancouver, armed with many pages of notes, copies of various files and reports unearthed from deep storage, and—of course—some of the latest books printed at Coach House and Porcupine’s Quill. Next step: sifting and synthesizing and thinking through all the new questions we’ve now found. This research project isn’t over by a long shot. You can watch our notes and writings take shape at http://thinkubator.ccsp.sfu.ca/wikis/chb
The Cahoots group was charged with exploring project-tracking software for small magazines, and in particular, the workflow surrounding advertising sales, which requires the simultaneous management of many items with multiple stages, tracking of communication, content delivery, and signoffs. Their investigations led to issue-tracking software, normally used by software developers, and they have prototyped a system based on Axosoft’s OnTime Express hosted system, customized to the needs of the small magazine world.
Here is the final report:
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