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.

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

  1. Hi Emily! Thank you for your post. I am glad you brought up the idea of fair use, as I too have a difficult time trying to decipher it. The projects you have brought up are interesting; I am also fond of projects including mapping, attempts at trying to narrate and grasp a scope and large amounts of data, to make it comprehensible. Because once it ‘clicks’ the projects can be truly stunning and educational at the same time. But as you use the metaphor of ‘slaying the dragon’ to claim victory over the task is very spot on to the first steps into the world of Omeka and Scalar that I am in right now.

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