The quest to conquer the Omeka dragon (or: how to build a digital world)

Now, I will be honest – my first experiences with Omeka (albeit several years ago) were not particularly pleasant. As someone primarily interested in mapping, Omeka did not seem intuitive, and seemed more suited to building exhibits than displaying large amounts of data and aggregating results. As I learn more about how finding a multiplicity of presentational methods is actually a very useful thing to do, I have found that the exhibit aspect of Omeka could be very helpful in creating immersive web experiences for the people interacting with my research. So, how to proceed? How to slay the Omeka dragon and claim victory as someone who successfully used the platform which has stymied countless others?

I have always been intrigued by Omeka, and inspired by other projects which utilize the great parts of it (if you can take the time and effort to learn how to do it) like Neatline and their Geolocation (read:mapping) plugins. Examples of this include the Histories of the National Mall website and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. These sites do not just have maps, but also lots of prose and other accompanying data to supplement the maps. I didn’t realize before how much of an asset that can be in displaying data. After all, there will never be one perfect way to display information, right? So, we might as well do as much as we can in as many different methods as we can. If you want to see more sites that incorporate the exhibit-display mode into their presentation of data, take a look at the Met Archives or the William Blake Archives.

So, how do I work with this myself? Thanks to help from JJ Bauer and several colleagues, I am now well on my way to building my first Omeka exhibit. I will say that the process is not intuitive; however, the Omeka User Manual is incredibly helpful! Though the site may seem sparse at first, with the help of plug-ins and themes, it starts to shape up quickly (unlike wordpress, which I’ve found can take some finaggling to really get in a presentable place, depending on the theme. One note – I used Reclaim hosting (which I cannot reccomend enough) as my file server, as you need a separate file server to install themes and plug-ins on your site.

Scalar, a comparable platform to Omeka, is organized much moreso like a book, yet is actually very intuitive for uploading media objects. You can create pages and media, and link the media to the pages. You also can directly bring in objects from famous archives like the Met online archive, in addition to bringing in videos from Vimeo or Youtube. I have yet to really poke around in Scalar, but may find it more useful for the sound recording archives I would like to display in various exhibit-type interfaces. I’ll be sure to give any updates if there are major issues or victories there!

I wish I could say that once you have the tech figured out, you can begin building your exhibit with no other concerns. As any scholar dealing with objects knows, however, there are more issues to curating online exhibits than just figuring out the platform specifics. The main issue I am speaking to is copyright and fair use.

Yes, the legal ramifications. The concern over usage rights. The whole shebang. The other dragon in the cave, yet one we cannot (and perhaps should not want to) slay. The rights under fair use are confusing, but for my purposes are most pertinent related to education usage. In a nutshell, fair use dictates that you may use copyrighted materials so long as they are for educational purposes without the permission of the copyright holder. They key here is making sure that your intent to use the information for educational purposes is clear. This is valuable information to include on a webiste or exhibit page. You can read more about it in this College Art Association (CAA) Report and in the CAA Commons Code of Best Practices.

In following best practices, we should take advantage of the extensive breadth of information we can include in an objects metadata in our exhibits to ensure that the source and credit for an object is correctly placed. If you are confused on what metadata is and how it functions, I reccomend this Idea Blog “Mapping the World of Cultural Metadata Standards” or this Metadata Primer. The key thing I bring to the fore is this: our metadata needs to be comprehensive in where we give credit to where our objects originated from, who sang or created them, who let us have access to them, how we are giving others access, and why.

Building a digital world is tricky. We have to master the technology of digitizing craftsmanship, of weilding the sword (or our typing skills?) to tackle the dragons which seem to guard the entrance to truly engaging and responsibly made digital exhibits.

Displaying Digital Projects: When You’re Happy, Nobody Else is Happy

As the field of digital humanities grows, so do the number of users, and with that, its critics. This is especially true with the display, function, and design of web pages which show our data, findings, and archival materials. I have found all too often we are quick to judge others’ projects for what they don’t do, rather than accompany these critiques with appreciation for what they accomplish (I myself am also guilty of this). Need an example?

This is something for us to look out for in the digestion of digital food for thought but also is a concern for those of us in the process of making digital projects. We are constantly going to be critiqued. The hard work we do will often go underappreciated. It doesn’t matter that it took half an hour or more to get the website header to look just right… if our thumbnails are a titsch too small, someone will undoubtedly only focus on that. We also do this to each other, let’s get real. For example, the Digital Scriptorium webiste (a repository for digitized medieval documents) is not browsable – you must have a good idea of what you’re trying to find before you can use the search function and actually see the digitized items. The Fashion and Race Database project, however, has a resources page filled with books that isn’t searchable, so browsing is the only option for finding something in your interests. These two sites are the far ends of the Goldy Locks spectrum, with no sense of “just right” until you see the challenge in the first place. It is impossible for us, when we are designing our websites, to be cognizant of every issue such as this browsing conundrum which may arise for users. I found myself complaining about this and realizing that I was complaining about something the web editor probably wasn’t even aiming to address.

While it is easy to point out the issues in interface, I would also like to take a moment to appreciate the sheer amount of work that has gone into these pages. In an age where websites are ubiquitous and instantly expected to serve our every need, we have to keep ourselves from just judging the sites and projects for what we want from them.

All this is also not to say that critique is bad. In fact, as digital humanists we should constantly be seeking feedback on our sites to aboid as much user frustration as possible (as users are typically easily frustrated). Common frustrations include searchability, navigation ease, and ease of access. In regard to these issues, we can aim to create what Mitchell Whitelaw calls “generous interfaces.” On the matter, he says:

As an interface, search fails to match the ample abundance of our digital collections and the generous ethos of the institutions that hold them. A more generous interface would do more to represent the scale and richness of its collection. It would open the doors, tear down the drab lobby; instead of demanding a query it would offer multiple ways in, and support exploration as well as the focused enquiry where search excels. In revealing the complexity of digital collections, a generous interface would also enrich interpretation by revealing relationships and structures within a collection.

Whitelaw. Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1 (2015).

Overall, the scene can seem downright grim from a website and project designer’s perspective. Why put in all the work to make the best generous interface we can for such little reward? Answer: do the work for something that you value, something that matters to you, It is increasingly apparent that digital prjects are often side projects and take a lot of loving labor and time away from a scholar’s other obligations. This increases the necessity to do digital projects we are passionate about.

One example of passionate digital scholarship is that presented in Tim Sherratt’s “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Sherratt’s work on re-representing the faces of Australia has clearly touched him deeply, as is evident in his writing:

It’s all about the stuff.
It’s all about the respect and responsibility we both have for our collections.
It’s all about the respect and responsibility we both have for people like this.

Another site where the mission statement is clearly a driving force in its development is “People of Color in European Art History.” This blog, hosted on Tumblr, has in its mission statement:

The focus of this blog is to showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color. All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia. Sometimes it’s just about really looking at artworks you’ve seen many times before, with a fresh perspective.

These sites and projects, while works in progress, are good examples for the rest of us working in digital projects. Even if our links break and our site is heavily criticized, we can avoid extreme distress and burnout by knowing that our work matters, that we’re doing our best to make a generous interface.

Treating Digitization Information Overload: A True Story

The literature and guidelines published by various organizations is immensely helpful and incredibly confusing when faced with the logistics of digitizing objects, whether it be written documents, objects, photos, audio files, etc.

Adventures in Digitizing Photos

In musicology, it is tempting to forego the effort to include high resolution images in our presentations and articles when we have phones that can snap a pic quickly. However, in learning from my art history colleagues, it is clear that the images are just as important as the text and music – after all, if it is worth including, it must be significant, yes? And though we may not be drawing our whole research process on the image, utilizing imagery is still an essential aspect of disseminating research. Especially if images are being included within interactive mapping and digital methods in musicology, adding information to the metadata in particular is also important.

Just in the process of trying to digitize a printed photo, extra efforts to ensure good quality can help with displaying research digitally. The photo below was digitally uploaded on a Xerox scanner and edited in Adobe bridge and Photoshop, with metadata added in Tropy. Using methods like these ensure that spots in photos may be removed, metadata can be altered and added, and that photos are of at least decent quality, depending on our research needs.

Image uploaded via Xerox scanner and edited in Photoshop, via New York and Company Fall 2019 Catalog.

Digitization How – to guides

The task of putting in this extra effort does seem daunting. However, there are various guidelines out there that provide users with tips on how to achieve the best quality of digitization standards. The best thing about these is that they are all available online. The Getty introduction to imaging provides a comprehensive guide with thorough explanations of not only methods and information about the digitization process, but also includes much information on the why of digitization and why each method and procedural step is integral to the process. Likewise, Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web is structured in textbook fashion, offering chapters with extensive explanations regarding the impetus behind decisions in digitization. The Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative has published the Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials, which provides details for digital imaging in many short bulletpoints and paragraphs. This guide does provide useful information, though it can be overwhelming when taken at first (or second or third) perusal. Finally, the Reccomended Formats Statement from the Library of Congress has bulletpoint lists which offer straightforward reccomendations for file formats. This is helpful if you do not want to do the reading behind the “why” of it all and are easily overwhelmed by too much information (though I’d reccomend reading the first two sources at some point). In a pinch, all of these could be helpful when trying to get through the digitization process. Take it slow, actually utilize the methods, and you will avoid the information overload.

Many software basics such as Adobe suite and Photoshop get you fairly far, as Adobe PDF’s have an OCR option, and Photoshop (obviously) in consistently a fan favorite.

Drawbacks of Digitization How-to Guides

The guidelines published by the aforementioned groups are useful, yet lack essential aspects of actually engaging with technology, particularly technology with which one is unfamiliar. Directions and explanations can’t offer alternate explanations worded differently if you can’t find any descriptions that break a process down for you the way you need to understand. An explanation of what JSON is does not help you understand which specific new software on your computer can save in that format. The ability to ask people and to utilize the directions as much as possible, to physically go through the motions to find questions, concerns, and problems is an essential aspect of reading these guidelines. Reading them without using them or doing them does not help you really understand their utilization, especially when all sorts of information is being thrown at you rapid fire.

Digitization can be frustrating, but with patience, these guides, and perhaps some googling, it is definitely worth the effort.


Digital Art History, do you copy?

As a musicologist with prior experience in the delicate crossover between the digital and humanities, I came to the questions of the legitimacy and efficacy of “digital art history” as a discipline with an understanding of issues that plague many humanities fields when they are faced with the reality of ubiquitous digital life. While certain concerns related to art history are unique to the field (such as slide comparison and image parcing), there are several overarching trends which are applicable both in art historical and musicological research. These similarities arise in both the hopes for digital humanities’ possibilities and, conversely, the difficulties that arise in incorporating digital humanities methods into both fields.

The hopes for digital humanities are numerous. From the promise of data mining to produce large-scale patterns (Drucker, 9) to the various aggregational avenues which may offer new insights on collected data, the obviously digital computational processes have proved alluring, despite the obvious and pervasive viewpoint that the digital is so far removed from the essence of the human that it is difficult to justify it in terms of the humanities (to say nothing of the problematic nature of that view in the first place).

Yet another hopeful pursuit in the digital humanities is the accessibility of formally and informally published scholarship to all those with internet access. This endeavor is challenged by the questions of electronically published materials’ legitimacy in the scholarly realm. While scholarship in exclusively electronic journals is rising in legitimacy in both art history and musicology, there are certainly two camps in each discipline, one which embraces this change and one which rejects this attempt at deconstructing elitism within the academy. Finally, the concern for prior printing processes via book publishers and their declining business has also been brought to the fore (Kirsch). For the field to progress, these concerns must be addressed with concrete solutions.

With the possibilities for digital humanities comes the ramifications of embracing such work. Scholars in both musicology and art history tend to be quite solitary in their research endeavors, and often work alone. Digital humanities, however, necessitates interdisciplinary work amongst several scholars for truly terrific work which incorporates uniquely coded elements, expert utilization of audio, video, imagery, and embedded links (some of which are accessible to most users, yet others require assistance, typically from those with coding and IT experience) (Shonfeld, Long). Such interdisciplinary work can seem daunting to those accustomed to more isolated scholarly pursuits.

Various scholars and insitutions have searched for solutions to these issues regarding digital humanities which have given rise to questions enveloping the field. The Kress Foundation and scholars such as Matthew Long, Roger Shonfeld, and Diane Zorich have attempted to help scholars and research libraries to bridge gaps between the current state of digital humanities and digital art history. Others, such as Adam Kirsch, have outspokenly negated the claims of technological integration in academic settings. The issue is still hotly debated in both art history and musicology departments across the United States.

Digital humanities is not only relegated to the scholarly output of research, nor the pedgogical possibilities – digital means are enhancing the social aspects of scholarship as well. Networking and online presence are critical aspects of publishing and scholarly community relations, and the presence of Twitter and other social media are drastically influencing the way scholars interact with and connect with each other on personal and professional levels.

The overwhelming theme of these readings is that digital art history is a silent companion – we as scholars cannot ask it if we are using it to the best of its abilities, if we are retaining our humanness while embracing the digital, or if “digital humanities” is even an oxymoron at all. We can cry for the field(?) of digital humanities to reveal to us what we need to know to legitimize it within our own contexts, but for the moment, all that awaits is uncertain static, filled with opportunity and buzzing with potential, yet in need of fine tuning.


Sheila Brennan, Navigating DH for Cultural Heritage Professionals,

Johanna Drucker (2013) Is There a “Digital” Art History?, Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 29:1-2, 5-13, DOI: 10.1080/01973762.2013.761106

Adam Kirsch. “The Limits of the Digital Humanities.” in New Republic, May 2, 2014.

Matthew Long, Roger C. Schonfeld, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Art Historians” (Ithaka S+R, 2014).

“Creating Your Web Presence: A Primer for Academics,” ProfHacker(February 14, 2011).