Omeka Workshop at the Bard Graduate Center

By Chris Lillis Meatto

On June 18, the New York City Digital Humanities group (NYCDH), Bard Graduate Center (BGC), and the Metropolitan New York Library Council hosted a workshop training attendees on Omeka, a content management system used to build online spaces for digital collections. Developed and maintained by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media of George Mason University, Omeka’s straightforward user experience and Dublin Core-driven publishing platform has earned it acclaim among academic and non-profit communities. In attendance were area librarians, archivists, scholars, and technologists of varied familiarity with Omeka, all interested in using it for their own institutional projects. The day-long event showed that in addition to Omeka’s ease of use, part of its appeal lies in its flexibility and scalability: starting with only basic technical aptitude or experience, administrators can create elegant, user-friendly sites using simple themes as end products or the starting points for highly-customized interfaces.

The morning began with BGC Digital Media Lab director Kimon Keramidas welcoming the group and talking about how and where Omeka fits within the larger digital humanities ecosystem. Keramidas, who uses Omeka as a teaching aid and project platform, spoke of the production and consumption of non-linear narratives inherent to the digital age: increasingly, humanistic inquiry wants to break down blocks of information into component parts and study the individual item from any number of perspectives and directions, thereby hopefully generating new ways of interrogating and explaining the object itself. Since Omeka—unlike, say, WordPress’ journalistic bent—is object- rather than text-driven, it places the “thing-ness” of its collections first and affords rich display and deep examination of its objects and their attendant data. Therefore, Keramidas noted, Omeka is an excellent tool for unpacking how the digital term paper, thesis, or dissertation might function: the media collected and described within a single site ends up making an argument on behalf of those objects; and when considered within a context free of directionality, such collections ultimately comment on their own unique epistemology. He also presented various BGC projects and sites, such as the Object of the Month Archive and an oral history project, to show how Omeka improves upon traditional digital collections and incorporates media fluidly into its design.

Keramidas also spoke about the role and larger goals of NYCDH in terms of facilitating conversations, building support networks, and creating learning spaces among New York’s DH practitioners from library, museum, and academic communities. Serving as an unofficial meeting of NYCDH, this workshop mirrored the group’s stated aims of bringing together talented, interested professionals of all backgrounds and experience levels. Throughout, Keramidas and other NYCDH steering committee members also present underscored the welcoming, collaborative nature to digital humanities in general and NYCDH in particular. The group, which had 262 members at the time of writing, hopes to build a supportive community of practitioners in the metro area and welcomes new members to sign up and get involved.

Next, Arden Kirkland, of Vassar College, presented on the Vassar College Costume Collection, a project she has been working on since 2002. Kirkland’s Omeka site is meant to showcase the object itself—rather than an image of the object—and so seeks to replicate the experience of browsing the collection in person. By offering different angles and views of the clothing, interweaving audio and video media when relevant, and generally leveraging collection metadata to build relationships among assets, Kirkland strives to let users look inside the objects. Kirkland’s Omeka site for the Costume Collection, for which she was the primary architect, was built on a shoestring budget and brought up the crucial issue of funding and institutional support—one which the workshop would return to throughout the day.

Stacy Schiff and Jen Cwiok of the American Museum of Natural History presented next on the museum’s Omeka site, Digital Special Collections, which functions as a hybrid exhibition space and dynamic catalog of the museum’s vast holdings. Like Kirkland’s VCCC, Schiff and Cwiok began work on this before Omeka was created; they migrated to Omeka for its ease of use and rich visual displays. As they built out their site to manage the museum’s digital collections, their staff grew, too. While some might think that streamlining workflows reduces positions or creates redundancies, Schiff and Cwiok testified to a concomitant growth of staff alongside the development of their digital archive.

Patrick Murray-John and Kim Nguyen, respectively Omeka’s Development Team Manager and Lead Designer, then shared what users could look forward to in future releases. Flexibility and interoperability were the major themes as the team described meaningful changes both for Omeka novices and experts. Short codes—shortcuts that tidily shrink lengthy strings of code into manageable bundles—will give users quick, unfussy ways to incorporate a host of plugins and boost functionality. Representative images for individual collections and exhibits, long an issue for users, will be easier to manage. And the .net version of Omeka—the free version of the platform, hosted by Omeka itself, with generally fewer options for customization—will get a makeover. Throughout, Murray-John and Nguyen underscored, and indeed exemplified, the responsive development support and approachability often cited as reasons to use Omeka. Both were very interested in how workshop attendees used the platform, solicited ideas for improvements, and troubleshot issues on the spot.

Before breaking for lunch, a small group of presenters rotated in and out for lightning talks. Attendees from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the New School, Columbia University, and even Murray-John himself showed off their Omeka sites. Each made different use of visual display, strong underlying metadata, and novel approaches toward storytelling and offering research roadmaps.

Following lunch, Keramidas chaired an open meeting of NYCDH, starting the session by asking, “How do you prepare to go down the rabbit hole of pulling off digital projects?” The wider group talked about managing institutional and external support; developing communities and sharing expertise; the intricacies of conversation between library staff and IT; and gauging professional resources and investments. The NYCDH site is intended as a locus of information and activity for its members—all active digital humanists, however one might define that term—by coordinating efforts and bridging the divides between otherwise likeminded projects and practitioners too often isolated behind institutional walls. On NYCDH.org, different pages function as hubs for sharing information, asking questions, and generating and determining interest in programming. Eventually, the idea is to build sub-sites for all pages to boost collaboration, adding project proposal and workflow documentation where appropriate, steadily forming an open knowledge base.

After a round of discussion about local troubleshooting, Patrick Murray-John proposed creating an IT group within NYCDH’s Omeka Working Group to track down and build out expertise among colleagues: perhaps institutions could buy into a system of crowdsourced IT help, and users or institutional groups might rotate system administrator duties. A call then followed for a regional workshop on how to get Omeka up and running and talk to IT about full-stack development, something with which many librarians, archivists, and curators might not have deep experience. In all, the open meeting offered a receptive audience and forum, and attendees seemed eager to become active members within the community.

Participants then broke out into one of a handful of workshops: Introduction to Omeka, taught by Zachary Coble, of NYU; Theming Omeka, run by Kim Nguyen; Under the Hood, taught by Patrick Murray-John; and Teaching with Omeka, led by Kimon Keramidas.

At Keramidas’ pedagogy workshop, talk returned to narrative structures, digital stewardship of information, and presenting work in an online environment. Keramidas shared Omeka sites that he had built and also others done by his students as graduate projects, stressing throughout that, despite their sleek wrappers, strong writing skills as well as the content itself remain paramount in any digital project. Indeed, he reiterated the concept that to build a digital collection is to craft an argument, embodied within and articulated by each object. The question arose of how to get students to think of digital projects as serious academic endeavors when they are otherwise inundated with online information, running the spectrum from “listicle” to online scholarly journal article. Keramidas answered that building that awareness through instruction takes many forms, some of which are: highlighting the digital, dynamic nature of BGC projects while discussing academic standards and expectations during new student orientation; holding an in-person salon once a semester where students present and critique project sites while working work out a vocabulary and criteria for success among their cohort; and enforcing structured drafting protocol—proposal, goals, requirements, rough and final copies—similar to traditional assignments.

Omeka—and other similar tools—allows Keramidas’ students to consider rhetorical strategies, “acuity of voice,” as he put it, and quality research skills in new contexts and through dynamic means. As such platforms widen in scope and appeal, it is heartening to see such a diversity of implementation and enthusiasm meeting the assorted needs and interests of practitioners.

Cultural and academic institutions continue their important work of archiving, displaying, and teaching with digital collections apace. Thanks to utilities like Omeka, and the strong communities of users and administrators who shepherd their development along, it is becoming increasingly easier to collect and share such materials. NYCDH’s work in corralling area practitioners and making use of their skills and experiences will only add to the growing awareness that digital collections are front and center in new teaching and research methods. To emphasize their commitment beyond established professionals and institutions in the field, NYCDH is hosting a competition for outstanding DH projects at the graduate level. All are encouraged to submit their proposals.

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