WESTERN ROCK ART RESEARCH: PRESERVING ROCK ART ORAL HISTORY FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS

Publishing is the activity of making information or knowledge publicly available. By that definition, rock art, whether painted or carved (petroglyphs), is the oldest form of publishing in existence. Through etchings and drawings on rock, early humans documented their lives and beliefs and preserved their traditional stories. Rock art is the ancestor of the printed book!

Rock art has been a part of human expression for over 30,000 years. Unfortunately, ancient rock art is lost every day all around the world. Increased development and recreational use has led to an increase in the amount of damage occurring to rock art, a precious cultural resource for indigenous peoples, on both public and private lands.

Founded in 2006, Western Rock Art Research is a small non-profit dedicated to the preservation, documentation, and research of Indigenous and early historic rock art throughout the world. In particular, the organization focuses on the Western United States and Australia.

I work with Western Rock Art Research (WRAR) to document these early “publications” and transform them into modern journals and books. For going on a decade, the researchers at Western Rock Art Research have worked with the Wardaman people of Northern Australia, including Wardaman elder Bill Yidumduma Harney, to create oral histories of rock art sites.

For the past two years, WRAR researcher David Lee and I have taken these oral history transcripts and associated rock art imagery and created a series of printed publications that are then returned to the Wardaman community in Australia.

The Publishing Project

Western Rock Art Research asked me to manage the editorial design of a series of books. Each book would contain an oral history of a site and documenting photographs. The photographs needed to appear side by side with the narrative (including Wardaman language words), ideally on the same page but at minimum on the same page spread. Further, the layout needed to work across a range of books that varied in length and contents.

The Editorial Design

I immediately recognized that we needed to create a unique grid to use across all of the publications. The grid would create a consistent look-and-feel across volumes. Equally important, the grid-based design also needed to be flexible enough to incorporate a range of photograph sizes and arrangements displayed alongside text.

I started with a grid that was based on proportional divisions of the page widths and heights. Then two columns were created using this grid. Text and images were in turn placed within these columns. Images were allowed to either fit snuggly within one column or span two columns.

The documents were quite large, given the size of the high quality photographs used. Laying out a book of this size and complexity within a single InDesign document would be a disaster. For example, should an edit of the front matter affect the page count, then there can be a ripple effect through the remainder of the book which results in misplaced images and text. To account for future edits, I used the InDesign book feature to manage each chapter as its own document, which allowed for faster loading and editing of book documents and easier edits of individual chapters.

With a design in place that covers everything from image and illustration layout to typography, we are able to efficiently create new volumes in the on-going series.

Thoughts

Often, I am asked why I have built a career in book publishing. Simply, I have a love for books and the vast trove of knowledge contained within them. Preserving and making knowledge accessible has always been a priority. The mission statement of my first imprint was “to bridge the gap between thousands of years of traditional knowledge and the modern day.” Working with organizations like Western Rock Art Research allows me to pursue this mission.