Reviewed by:
K. Sarah Ostrach, Digital Asset Librarian
Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Stanford University

Wax is a flexible workflow for creating online scholarly exhibitions with high quality, IIIF-ready images. It provides an alternative to tools like Omeka or WordPress for information professionals, faculty, or students interested in creating digital exhibitions or other projects showcasing collections of images. ‘Using’ Wax means employing a variety of skills and software, thus the designation as a workflow rather than a standalone product like more familiar turnkey software packages.

The Wax project is led by Marii Nyröp, Digital Humanities Technology Specialist at New York University, and maintained by both Nyröp and Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Columbia University. Because Wax is open source, there is a larger community involved in building out Wax capabilities and providing support. The principles behind Wax and similar minimal computing, or minicomp, projects are longevity, low cost, and flexibility. These ideals are often elusive with the paid tiers and software updates from vendors. The creators summarize the tradeoff thus:

Wax was created for individuals and groups who either don’t have or don’t want to use a lot of resources to create their scholarly exhibitions. It’s best suited for folks who are willing to take on some technical responsibility in exchange for a lot of flexibility.

Herein lies the challenge of Wax: its price tag and open source code are more accessible for a wider scholarly community but only for those who have the technological know-how to use it or have digital scholarship departments to assist them. Anyone without the resources for expensive or processing-hungry software and who is likewise unversed in web development, data management, and plain text editing will be unable to take advantage of Wax.

Perusing sample Wax exhibitions here, a casual viewer may question how exhibitions created with Wax are different from those made with Omeka, and the answer is in the backend. Rather than installing a single software package, users must fork the Wax repository in GitHub, essentially creating a copy of the Wax application that they can modify without changing the original source code. Next, users create a CSV, JSON, or YAML file with the metadata for the exhibition images. The metadata and image files are placed in folders within the copied source code. From here Wax generates a static site using Jekyll themes (another minicomp outgrowth), hosted by GitHub for free.

Wax workflow includes organizing metadata and image files, preparing data in the repository, deploying a static site, and testing.

Utilizing Wax requires familiarity with Git and GitHub, Jekyll themes, Ruby programming language, normalizing data files, and editing HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Learning Wax requires skills broadly applicable across web development and data management, but most Library & Information Studies programs, however, do not include these skills in the standard curriculum, though this may be changing. For those interested in using Wax and undaunted by the technologies involved, the process is extremely well documented. Detailed instructions and explanations live on the Minicomp/Wax Wiki. The entire project, documentation, and new developments live on GitHub (a platform for hosting software development and version control online). Users can share ideas, new developments, and questions via the Wax Gitter (an online, open source chatting tool for developers) and the code4lib Slack channel

Wax documentation Wiki with detailed description and formatted code samples.

Open source technology is a double-edged sword. It is unconstrained by institutional affiliations, budgets, or one-size-fits-all solutions. However, it also requires possessing or having access to someone with advanced web development skills. For an art librarian or visual resources curator with neither of these and further lacking the time to learn on the ground, it will be some time before Wax is the digital exhibition workflow of choice. For colleagues who are comfortable forking in GitHub or who partner with digital scholarship specialists, Wax is a fantastic opportunity to get everything you want and nothing that you don’t.