A sophisticated webfont solution for the humanities?

It gives me headaches for some time already. I get requests from scholars/universities about to possibly implement Andron Mega as a webfont to back typographically very ambitious online corpora editions of scientific nature, special texts with very special character demands, such as old manuscripts (e.g. Latin, Old Norse) or the legacy of philosopher L. Wittgenstein. Text corpora you just can’t depict with any of the ‘usual’ fonts running normally.
Some years ago, there has been a pilot implementation administered by scholars from the Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, under the direction of Prof. J. Fredell. You can view the Kempe-online project here, the transliteration (on the right side) is generated live out of Andron Mega webfont files.
Now, since other initiatives and editorial projects are knocking at my door, I face the challenge of creating some sort of business model for to offer such an implementation possibility to more interested parties and institutions. And this is where my headache starts. It implies a) the technical task of creating and maintaining (frequent character additions to come!) the neccessary webfont files; b) a suitable hosting model which is compatible to university project requirements; and c) a viable business plan in terms of licencing. Unfortunately, as experienced as a designer of fonts I may be, I seriously lack experience or clues to the other topics mentioned.
I am thinking about how to get along with it and come to a sensible solution. Perhaps a collaboration might be in order, but any potential partner shall be aware of the fact that this is a niche product with rather peculiar demands, and frequent upgrade raids to be expected.
The entire Andron Mega package contains currently about 14.800 glyphs. The Regular font alone contains about 5.900 glyphs, although it may get ‘physically’ cropped a bit for pragmatic reasons, it is not a thing handled easily.
Here is some little showcase about Andron on the web.
How much this matters at this point or not, the implementation of webfonts for high-level scientific online corpora editions of historic sources is still in its infancy, because so far there are hardly any fonts around to actually render what needs to be rendered. It is a difficult matter. But several people are working on this and the goal in the – more or less – distant future is, that we get online access to the works of Platon, Dante, Newton, Leibniz, Wittgenstein … you name them; as actual text (not just scans). The character set requirements of such editions are a huge challenge, however, it has been the very idea of Andron right from the beginning, to facilitate the most tricky sorts of text with high-quality typographic material. But, as time goes on and the techniques advance, the babie’s father seems to be in need of some advice or help.
I think there is a great development to be expected in high-level text editing online and this will be carried on mainly by scientific institutions and university projects.
– Any informed thoughts upon this are highly welcome and appreciated.


  • Supporting scientific transliteration of medieval (and older) handwriting means level 3, i.e. use of PUA and requests for new glyphs during transliteration.

    Even in printed books 1700-1900 (I focus on OCR in the domain natural history) unknown symbols can appear, i. e. unassigned in Unicode.

    You need a business model covering

    - change requests (per glyph? per hour?)
    - font versions and bundles
    - upgrades

    Yes, the field is growing. Museums, collections, archives, libraries, universities.
  • I wouldn’t say this about just anything, but this scenario seems like it really needs a robust open source solution — Google Fonts being the most obvious champion. That is, academic entities are (I think) often reluctant to buy into an external solution on which they will be dependent. Being able to self-host necessary, specialized fonts with a perpetual license seems more palatable. If there are unique, non-Unicode glyphs required, then they’d be vulnerable to evolving technical standards and there would be a danger of a font’s functionality changing unexpectedly if they were delivered by a third party.

    I appreciate that this kind of specialized work can’t be done for free, so it would be nice if someone with money could fund the work for good of the academic community.

    (I certainly have no idea if Google would really want to fund something like this. I’m just thinking out loud.)
  • Thank you Christopher; considerations such as you describe have been in discussion eventually. The idea has its charme – and its pitfalls. The most problematic aspect will be, that providing a highly specialized typeface for scientific use is a high-maintenance-thing. Scholars do not want to bother with licence issues or abo-payment models, but they come along all time “oh I still need this very special characters in the font, can you please do it.” There is constant upgrade work to be executed, in close association with scholars. This is time- and nerve-consuming of course. And I dare say Google (or some other big player) wouldn’t want to get dragged into such a modus operandi.
    As charming as the idea of a “Buy-out” towards an open-source solution may be, I don’t see it coming. As long as I can cater for the client’s (very special) needs, they are better off in the end by rewarding me directly for what they want to get.
    That the whole academic world actually needs a prolific selection of high-performance fonts in order to render texts of whatever kind sensibly, the day of that idea has yet to dawn.

  • Peter BakerPeter Baker Posts: 164
    edited April 2021
    I think you're right that Google wouldn't be interested in funding a project that requires work at irregular intervals indefinitely, far into the future. I've also experienced what you're talking about—scholars approaching me to ask for this or that. My things are always Open Source, and this isn't my living, so I don't charge. But if I did I think I'd charge by the glyph, probably making a distinction between composites and new glyphs, since the latter can take days and will involve research and a good bit of consultation.
    The reason I'd charge by the glyph instead of by the hour is that scholarly projects like the Margery Kempe edition are funded by grants, and they've got to be able to include font work as a budget item in their grant proposals. Charging by the glyph would make it easy for them to estimate what they'll have to spend for a customized font, while charging by the hour would place the burden of estimating the cost for a particular project on your shoulders.

  • I also practice to charge by the glyph, when I get addition requests. This works well. But the whole question of licencing and processing the webfont matter in particular, is another issue. I’m aware that this is terra incognita for almost everyone, at least with the scientific usage scenarios I am asked to deal with.
    To make Andron open-source one day seems almost certainly out of the question, for two reasons. 1st, I don’t see anyone likely to bail me out for this; 2nd, the aspect of quality control (which is crucial for this typeface) would become unmanagable, I assume.

  • I think you're right that Google wouldn't be interested in funding a project that requires work at irregular intervals indefinitely, far into the future.

    Google could just buy out the current version of Andron, which already covers a vast range of specialist applications. If people then require additional infrastructure, they can commission that directly from you, which wouldn't concern Google.

    Have you asked @Dave Crossland?

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