Content Management & Exhibits

Session 5 Recap

This week, we focused on Omeka and other ways to digitally archive (and present) research items. Two focus questions dominated our discussions.

  • Why create digital exhibits? 
  • Who benefits and has access through traditional vs. digital exhibits? (And what does that say about these exhibits?)

Group discussions mostly centered on diagramming/talking about potential architecture of individual Omeka sites, which included research topics such as: economic and food history; Myra Bradwell (or about Bradwell vs. Illinois court case); moonshine; popular music in politics; especially with presidential campaigns; American nurses in World War II; Letters from Union and Confederate veterans; History of the Appalachian Historical Association; and others.

As we progressed in our understanding of digitizing collections, one questions soon took over: What is the real purpose of an Omeka site? (Archival? Exhibition? Biography?) Other questions included:

Content Management & Exhibits

Concepts Over Specific Tools

Omeka is a great tool, but it isn’t the alpha and omega of the concept of digital history.  It’s an iteration of a concept.  For instance, there’s many types of hammers, but they’re all hammers.  Sure, it has features that other web programs don’t, and so far it seems to be the best one for humanities work, but the most important idea is the concept of what one can do with a digital format.

The examples that we looked at for this week made one thing clear: websites are a superior medium of presenting information.  Books are still a wonderful thing and should not be forgotten (they’re still the most portable, and there’s nostalgia, etc).  However, websites allow imagery and interactivity that levels the learning curve of different types of learners.  For someone like me, who is increasingly finding it hard to concentrate on slogging through books, websites offer a way to stay engaged with material and not burn out as quickly.  Furthermore, these features allow one to see concepts which only adds to the experience.  Take a timeline for example.  I can read a story and map out a timeline in my mind from the narrative.  However, it’s more pleasing and engaging to have an interactive timeline on a website.

Another concept that these example sites show is simple organization of data.  For a traditional history book format, all the information comes in a narrative, with maybe some charts and graphs if data is concerned.  Yet, these sites can take that information and group it under headlines and subpages.  Many books don’t even come with indices.  With a proper website, one doesn’t need an index; just click on the right link and be taken to the right section of the site.  This is also another example of adding visualization to the information.

Basically, I can envision websites becoming the standard form of information publishing, especially as generations shift in history departments.  As the new crop comes in, it’s going to be filled with people who have increasingly grown up in a digital world, which will influence how the structure of the institution is viewed.  Plus, as time goes on, the internet is going to become more accessible which is going to lead to more people being online in previously inaccessible spots.  People will be walking through the jungle looking up trees on Google.  Therefore, books will no longer be the most accessible form of publishing, leading to more people looking for history online.

Content Management & Exhibits

Omeka in the Workplace

Recently, I was hired to work as a summer intern at Tufts Archives and Given Memorial Library. It’s a small, but very pretty, little library in Pinehurst, North Carolina. For the most part, the Archives only keeps artifacts and documents related to their hometown, which mostly means that archivists save an absurd amount of information about retired white folks golfing away their golden years at the historic Pinehurst Resort. During the interview, my future boss explained to me that hours of their day are spent scanning and digitally archiving pictures and documents. Their backlog is insane. Tufts was opened during the 1960s, but they didn’t begin digital storage until 2015. This leaves the workers with about 70,000 papers to digitize and more coming in every day. Needless to say, I know what one of my major responsibilities will be this summer.  

Thankfully, Tufts is making use of Omeka and PastPerfect to keep their information safe and accessible. Since its original release in 2008, Omeka has proven invaluable for many historical societies, teachers, and museums. It is a software that allows users to manage and display images, text, and even sound and video files. Without programs like Omeka, small archives like Tufts would honestly not be able to enter the digital age, much less allow their workers easy access to the information they want. Best of all, it’s really reasonably priced. The basic application is free to all users, and even the premium application is only $1549. Tufts, and organizations like it, need those cheap prices because so many of them are funded through donations. It’s clear that the team that created Omeka care about preserving history and furthering their user experience.

My future boss explained to me that although they used Omeka for about three years, Tufts is working on transitioning their digital storage to the PastPerfect Museum Software. She didn’t explain the reasons for this change, and simply stated that it fits their needs better. However, when I mentioned that I had heard of the programs through my digital history class, she was incredibly complimentary towards both softwares. Despite the effort that goes into managing the book store, library, and archives all while digitizing a ton of information, she definitely believes that it would have been impossible without Omeka and PastPerfect. If you are interested in the Tufts website, it can be found HERE. If you wish to check out their digital archives, you can find it HERE.  

Content Management & Exhibits

Omeka: Digital Organization

This week’s readings and examples were on how to effectively use Omeka. Omeka provides an open-source web-publishing platform that is optimized for use by libraries, museums, and archives. In the ever increasing digital world, institutions have learned the importance of digital exhibitions that reaches a worldwide audience instead of patrons who must physically visit an exhibition.

Omeka’s use of open-source software has given an edge over the increasingly commercialized exhibits that can be used as a corporate marketing campaign instead of historical fact. The use of exclusive websites, paywalls, and other virtual forms of gatekeepers of marketable historical content has become much too common in the digital era. Omeka’s functions offer a more standardized way to give the opportunity to learn while allowing access without financial compensation on the so-called information superhighway.

Omeka’s blend of standardization, along with customization allows the creator to reach wide audiences by limiting the superficial, yet allowing a personal touch to the source material. The simple navigation allows either a direct route of a timeline according to a narrative, or a sandbox experience of allowing the audience to view the timeline according to their interpretation of the events. Additionally, the ability to create pages with content that is not overwhelming or a difficult user interface allows seamless transition through the source material. For individuals and historical organizations alike, Omeka provides a digital soapbox free of questionable influences, yet provides a revolutionary way to view history with minimal infrastructure investment in tandem with a traditional physical exhibit.

Content Management & Exhibits

Omeka Online Exhibits: Better Than Museums?

Omeka is a free online exhibit space for museums, archives, libraries, and other organizations. There are different versions for different organizations, who have different uses for the software. Omeka also has plugins, which makes customizing the online exhibit to your company’s needs as easy as a download. It is possible to create timelines and attach information to a map. Professional historians prefer Omeka because it enables them to provide correct metadata for their evidence of which traditional websites are not capable. Omeka combines a digital archive with an online museum exhibit.

Omeka seems like a public historian’s dream because they can cite their sources and share their information with the public. Public historians need websites like Omeka because there are citizens that cannot travel to the museum, do not have time to come to the museum, believe they are not welcome at the museum or think they would not enjoy their visit. Omeka can bring the exhibits of the museum to the public that is unwilling or unable to come to the museum and could convince others that they are welcome at the museum or pique their interest and bring others to the museum who may not otherwise visit the museum. Museums in China are now digitizing their exhibits because people are no longer visiting them because of the Corona Virus that is rapidly spreading through their country.

However, Omeka cannot replace traditional museum exhibits. The interactive elements on the Omeka website cannot compare to those found in a conventional museum. Also, museum patrons who view the online display lose the benefit of going to a museum with other people; they cannot strike up a conversation about the exhibit with a total stranger. Museum patrons utilizing the online exhibition also cannot discuss the content with docents and curators. This discussion could be geared more toward their interest, and they would leave the traditional museum exhibit with information personalized to their interests. This additional information would not be found in an online Omeka exhibit because there is not enough space to put every piece of information and evidence related to a topic in an online exhibition. There is also no substitute for seeing historical artifacts in person. While digitizing the content and historical objects of the museum, so those who do not have access to the museum or its records, is important, digitization, and online exhibits, at least for now, cannot replace the traditional physical museum exhibits.

Content Management & Exhibits

What’s the Point?

I love historical interpretation. To me, being able to take information and create narratives with diverse and complicated actors is one of the coolest things about studying history. I know not everyone agrees with me, but I almost view interpretation as the point of studying history. Without it, history can become a malformed mass of dates and places and names, and I’m not interested in that.

Digital history presents an incredible opportunity for widespread historical interpretation. Using site-building tools like Omeka, historians can upload primary sources and use them to convey complex ideas to the public. The combination of visual aids, digital copies of documents or photographs, and the words of a historian can help some people connect the dots, or even present new ideas or perspectives.

I bring this up because there are some sites that have embraced this idea, while others still function largely as an archive. I don’t mean to suggest that archives are of no use, or that providing interpretation should be mandatory. Digital archives can be excellent tools for historians, and sometimes another person’s interpretation of that source may get in the way. But it still feels like a squandered opportunity to not even attempt some interpretation.

For example, let’s look at the Southern Appalachian Archives Mars Hill University site. As an archive, it’s quite useful. The organization of the site is easy to follow, and they have five collections full of digital scans of documents. If you are searching for these sources to use for a research project, the site seems great. However, you may be disappointed if you’re hoping for the site’s authors to demonstrate how these documents played a role in Southern Appalachian society. I now know that an unpublished manuscript called “The Spirit of the Dance” exists, and I can look at every single page of it, but without reading it all the way through I couldn’t tell you what the greater significance of that manuscript is. Even then, I wouldn’t know if this author was particularly well-known at the time, or if his writings had any regional or national importance. It’s important to note that there is interpretation on the website, particularly under the “Exhibits” section. But other sites have shown that there can be brief interpretive sections with their primary source collections.

Let’s look at an example from the Civil War Era NC website. This entry does more than simply provide an object and the metadata. There are only a few sentences in the description, but they convey a sense of jubilation that the image on its own does not. This site likewise has an “Exhibits” section, but by not limiting the interpretation to that section, the site can provide deeper meaning to the objects shown in its archive.

These sites and others show that a well-organized and engaging website can be a great historical resource. But can they do more to provide context to the objects they display on their online archives? Or, should that be the responsibility of the public?