Getting to knOmeka

Omeka is both a web publishing and digital asset management system created in 2006 by none other than the Roy Rozenwig Center for History and New Media. Although they say that no expertise is required, it seems to be designed for cultural institution-type folks because of its heavy emphasis on metadata and an assumed knowledge of item-record-collection-exhibit hierarchy.

Click here for a short video.

The system is tiered, so you can do a free basic plan, or commit to paying anywhere from $50- $1,000 annually. The benefits of paying include greater storage, plugins, pages for your site, and design themes. As you may remember, I’m using Omeka for my final digital project in this class, so I was a little nervous about my options with the free plan. It turns out I can do a surprising amount, BUT I have asked the museum I’m working with to sponsor me for the SILVER plan $99 (still very affordable!) because it includes the “contribution” plugin necessary for people to be able to submit their own oral histories, as well as 2 GBs of storage.

As an archivist with little to no web design experience, I found Omeka easy to use. You have a dashboard in the vein of WordPress through which you can create items, collections, simple web pages, and exhibits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There are a list of plugins that you can configure or uninstall at will, and they have a lot of documentation, as well as a “Showcase”  of existing Omeka projects which I will demo in class.

Their metadata schema is based on Dublin Core, which is very easy to use and also has clear documentation.

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When creating item records, you can upload multiple files in a variety of formats – audio, video, pdf, jpeg, etc. I loved this because it helped me create connections rather easily between the oral history recordings and transcripts, appearing right next to each other within the same item record.

I also love the settings that you can create for different types of users. In my case, I’ll be adding museum staff as “Supers,” which means that they have full permissions for everything on the site, but I’ll also be creating separate customized profiles for contributors (those that can upload but not publish), and for the public (such as hiding some of the metadata).

Improvements: Omeka is GREAT (thanks Roy!) I just met with museum staff yesterday to show what I’d created and discuss the possibilities for the site. The fact that it’s both approachable and professional made it an easy sell, and I am very comfortable committing to this platform for long-range projects.

That being said, I do have several suggestions for improved usability.
1. Uploaded files should appear at the top of the record. Metadata is scary to some users and if what they want is the item, then it should not require scrolling to get to.

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2. Same point, but for the tags. The tags are useful, connecting a user to anything else within your site that has a similar tag, so why are they all the way at the bottom of the page?
3. I wish I had more control over the layout/design of the home page under the basic plan. You can upload a banner and header, and pick a pre-fab design, but my site is painfully plain without taking the time to teach myself PHP.

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A specific example of this are the set icon images for item types. I would really like to have a picture of each storyteller to represent the item, but because they are oral histories, Omeka assigns them a rather unengaging gray-scale megaphone. I have seen other sites in the Showcase that use photos as item thumbnails, but I’ve found no way to do this (I’ve been asking myself this a lot- why do other people’s websites look so much better than mine?! grumblegrumble).

Small quibbles aside, Omeka is fantastic. With over 100 websites launched so far for organizations both big and small, Omeka is one of the most competitive choices on the market for an affordable content management system or exhibit space that balances professional best practices with affordability.

 

Strategies for Structure in Digital History and Humanities, or David Bowie Save Us From Ourselves

Do you remember that scene in the Labyrinth where Jennifer Connelly is running up and down the stairs in David Bowie’s castle, trying to find her baby brother, but the stairs are all flying around, ending nowhere, and generally defying the laws of physics? That’s the only analogy I can think of to describe the current state of digital history and humanities as I understood them from our readings this week. Jennifer Connelly is the history or humanities scholar, just trying to do the moral thing, fulfill her professional role as responsible older sister, but it all gets really hard when she finds herself in an environment where established codes of reality no longer make sense. In a similar way, scholars are finding themselves competing in the online environment with amateurs and hacks, or in their most dangerous form,as Robert Weible writes, “concocting and selling self-serving histories that play on public fears, prejudices and greed” for notoriety or monetary gain.  In some aspects it’s actually worse than my Labyrinth analogy, because there’s no David Bowie in the online environment  (well, there is, but he’s not pulling the strings). It’s a chaotic, democratic, godless place.

Cohen & Rozenwig make the important point in their introduction to Digital History that this kind of thing was happening before the internet, but “digital media undercut an existing structure of trust and authority and we, as historians and citizens, have yet to establish a new structure of historical legitimation and authority.”

Establishing this structure seems to be happening in a variety of different ways. One strategy is policing the system, as Onion and Werner did in their chastisement of the popular Twitter handle @HistoryInPics. But should academics raise awareness of bad practices by calling out illegitimate sources?  Is this the best way for digital historian and humanist authorities to legitimize themselves?   Weible describes public historians as those who “neither deny their expertise nor keep it to themselves,” supporting the idea that policing and sanctioning what’s out there is the social responsibility of the historian in the new online frontier.

Another strategy is the one Cohen & Rozenwig advocate for-  academics should start building the environment they want RIGHT NOW through behavior (publishing articles online that are openly accessible) and creation (resource aggregation that meet the goals of their profession effectively and ethically). The sense of urgency in their book could’nt be clearer – getting ahead of competing interests is incredibly important in an environment where everything is in free fall.

A third, more complicated strategy emerges in Natalia Cercire’s “Introduction: Theory and the Virtue of Digital Humanities,” which questions the very authority of digital humanities, whose methodologies she sees as being far from settled:

“Yet in its best version, digital humanities is also the subdiscipline best positioned to critique and effect change in that social form- not merely replicate it.”

Far from building to build, Cercire would like to see DHs “dismantle” and question aspects of the profession before it is too concrete- even the language that is slowly starting to characterize what it is they do.

So I ask -can these strategies create the structure necessary for digital historians and humanitarians to flourish online? Will not establishing structure cause these disciplines to die out? Is chaos good for them too?