New Tool for Online Collections

February 20, 2008

Archival collections, impossible to house centrally at many campuses, are about to get easier to use. Starting today, librarians and archivists can upload digital content into online collections with relative ease, allowing them to effectively curate items with open-source tools instead of relying on third-party consultants to build specialized Web portals.

The solution is a software package called Omeka (whose Swahili name means, among other things, "to display," "to lay out for discussion" or "to unpack"), developed by George Mason University's Center for History and New Media. The center, which supports numerous projects exploring online archives for historical purposes, also developed the open-source citation management tool Zotero. Omeka evolved from several similar historical archive projects being produced independently at the center, such as the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.

"We sort of started to generalize those technologies that we used in those projects as kind of an internal thing," said Tom Scheinfeldt, the center's managing director. But they started to realize the problems faced by curators who couldn't easily create online exhibitions without going through third-party vendors. "So we wanted to create some kind of system that would allow collecting institutions to mount rich narratives," he said. A year and a half ago, the developers decided to release the code for a more general audience to meet a "broader need within the museum and library archive community." Armed with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded in September, and with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the center, along with the Minnesota Historical Society, released a private beta version of the software that month.

Today, the beta code is being made available to the general public. Using blogging software as a kind of model, the software's developers envision Omeka as a relatively simple way to produce a rich, well-designed site that meets the common needs of librarians and archivists. The software is highly customizable and open-source, and the site has a database of plug-ins written by other users and contributors that can, for example, alter a collection's look, features and layout.

While there are plenty of open-source solutions for "the back of the house," covering the cataloging and researching components, Scheinfeldt explained, there isn't as much of a focus on access and presentation. "What access means to the general public is something more stylized, something more constructed, something more vetted, more curated, something more designed -- an experience," he said.

The software allows curators to post items to a digital collection, in virtually any format they'd need. The interface also lets users upload their own materials and control copyright options for each item. For example, someone could decide to post something only for scholars to view privately, instead of for the public display, while others could upload material anonymously.

"I think there’s actually a great opportunity in the university community and the higher ed community," Scheinfeldt said. He added that he's been approached by graduate students interested in digital dissertations, and that Omeka might provide a way to make them more presentable, professional and more "standards-based" so that they could eventually catch on more broadly.

One digital archive that's already running an earlier version of Omeka, from before it was released publicly, is the April 16 Archive, created by Virginia Tech after last year's shooting attacks. Organized by tag and by media type, the collection features images, videos and written stories contributed by students, families of victims and others who wanted to memorialize the events online. Brent K. Jesiek, the manager of Virginia Tech's Center for Digital Discourse and Culture, came up with the idea with some colleagues as they discussed the sudden outpouring of online material related to the shootings -- such as blog posts, poetry, artwork and tribute sites -- that could eventually “wither over time” if it wasn't somehow preserved.

Jesiek was already familiar with the Center for History and New Media's work, and enlisted the team's help with the project before Omeka became a general-interest effort. (One student on the George Mason team was also a graduate of the history master's program at Virginia Tech, he added, which created an added urgency to the project.)

"I really think projects like Omeka represent a democratization of the memory bank and the archive.... It’s very different from how libraries and archivists typically approach these types of collections," Jesiek said.

In a chapter he co-wrote for a forthcoming book, There is a Gunman on Campus: Tragedy and Terror at Virginia Tech, Jesiek discussed the progression from physical to online archives and the role of Omeka in that shift:

"It stands as an important harbinger of change in an ongoing shift in archiving praxis from traditional to new media, in no small part because of how this technology pushes us to reconceptualize our individual and collective relations to memory."

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