"The potential of digital projects to present information in new and important ways seems limitless. Currently, however, digitization remains plagued by confusing standards, changing technologies, and doubts about the long-term viability of digital files."
Trevor Jones, Illinois Digitization Institute
Well into the second decade of the web, many collecting institutions and aspiring digital humanists still find it difficult to mount online exhibitions and publish collections-based research because they lack either technical skills or sufficient funding to pay high priced web design vendors. The digital libraries and archives fields have produced high quality repository and collections management software, but these packages carry too much technical overhead and pay too little attention to web presentation and end user interface for most digital humanities projects. Commercial blog packages have made it easy for digital humanists to publish materials to the web, but the blog's structure of serial text posts does not allow them to present deep collections or complex narratives.
That is why the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University, in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society, has created Omeka. From the Swahili word meaning "to display" or "to lay out for discussion," Omeka is a next generation web publishing platform for academic work of all kinds, one that bridges the university, library, and museum worlds through--and by helping to advance--a set of commonly recognized web and metadata standards. Omeka is free and open source. It offers low installation and maintenance costs--appealing to individual scholars and smaller cultural heritage projects and institutions that lack technical staffs and large budgets. It is standards based, extensible, and interoperable--insuring compliance with accessibility guidelines and integration with existing digital collections systems to help digital humanists of all stripes design online exhibitions more efficiently. Omeka brings Web 2.0 technologies and approaches to digital humanities websites, fostering the kind of user interaction and participation that are central to the mission of digital humanities, and providing the contribution mechanisms, tagging facilities, and social networking tools that audiences are coming to expect.
Collecting institutions such as museums, archives, and libraries have two faces. One is the face they present to the world through their public events, education programs, and gallery exhibitions. The other is the private face of their collections store rooms, of the behind-the-scenes world inhabited by curators, registrars, and collections managers. Indeed, individual scholars often have these same two faces: the overflowing file cabinets of their offices contrast mightily with the svelte prose of their journal articles and the flowing speech of their lectures.
During the past twenty years, cultural heritage professionals have come to enjoy a relatively wide range of software choices to help them manage the digital resources in their care. Libraries, in particular, enjoy many good choices in picking an integrated library system (ILS) to manage collections, patrons, and even financial information. These choices include both commercial products such as SIRSI and Voyager and open source packages such as Evergreen and Koha. Archivists enjoy many of these same tools in addition to several well developed digital archives management packages such as CONTENTdm or the open source DSpace and Fedora Commons. Museum curators choose from a strong catalog of collections management systems, including The Museum System, KE EMu, MultiMimsy, and for smaller museums, PastPerfect. A new initiative, CollectionSpace, aims to build an open source competitor to these established commercial products for museums.
Even individual scholars have good software choices when it comes to managing personal research archives, including well established commercial bibliographic management tools like EndNote and RefWorks and Web 2.0 and open source newcomers like LibraryThing and Zotero, an extension for the Firefox web browser produced by my home institution, the CHNM at George Mason University. Each of these packages has its strengths and weaknesses, but taken together, they represent a robust marketplace of options for cultural heritage professionals needing to sort, organize, describe, and maintain digital resources. Each offers a real solution to the digital needs of the more private, collections-focused work of cultural heritage. Strikingly, however, not one of these packages seriously addresses the other face of cultural heritage, the more public facing work of dissemination and education. Well into the second decade of the web, most cultural heritage institutions and aspiring "digital humanists" (humanities scholars with a digital bent) still find it difficult to mount online exhibitions and publish collections-based research because they lack the right tools. Some of the repository and collections management packages mentioned above offer something in the way of online presentation tools, but their web outputs consist of little more than searchable lists of collections records. They are not (and arguably should not be) concerned with providing facilities for structuring collections in narrative exhibitions, for creating and communicating meaning through collections. Where sophisticated online publishing occurs in the cultural heritage and scholarly fields, it usually occurs only through high priced web design vendors.
In contrast, Omeka is an open source, next generation web publishing platform for collections-based research of all kinds. It bridges the scholarly, library, and museum worlds through, and by helping to advance, a set of commonly recognized web and metadata standards. Omeka aims to put serious web publishing within reach of all scholars and cultural heritage professionals.
Despite the lack of web publishing tools designed specifically for scholars and cultural heritage professionals, one form of web publishing has taken off among these groups in recent years: blogging. Many museums, libraries, archives, and individual scholars now maintain blogs as a way of reaching out to stakeholders, relaying results of research, and building online communities. Some of these have gained significant traction, increasing the reach of larger, well established institutions and scholars and introducing less well known institutions and individuals to new audiences. While popular blog software such as Movable Type, Blogger, and the open source WordPress have made it easy to publish textual content to the web, a blog's essential structure of chronological, serial text posts does not allow one to meet certain challenges. A blog cannot provide multiple pathways through an exhibition or tell the kind of multi-threaded stories that are a hallmark of the way audiences experience physical exhibits. Blogs are very well suited to communicating words to museum visitors, library patrons, and archives users, but they are ill-equipped at tying words to digital collections, which is the ultimate aim of collecting institutions in particular. Because of the more textual nature of their work, scholars can go further with a blog, but if they want to expose their readers to the primary source documents, artifacts, and multimedia materials that support their text, the blog falls short. Our aim with Omeka was to build a piece of web publishing software with the ease of use and audience-centeredness of a blog but one that puts collections and collections-based research and exhibits front and center.
Omeka has been called "WordPress for museums" or "WordPress for collections." Though Omeka doesn't share any code with WordPress, and bears only a passing technical resemblance to the popular open source blog platform, several core members of the Omeka team are avid WordPress hackers and WordPress has frequently provided a useful point of analogy and common touchstone in Omeka design and development meetings. In particular, Omeka has taken three cues from WordPress.
First, like Wordpress, Omeka offers low startup and maintenance costs which appeals to individual scholars and smaller cultural heritage organizations that lack technical staff or funding for outside web design services. Like WordPress, Omeka is available as a free installable download for the standard open source LAMP stack. Its five-minute setup makes launching an online exhibition as easy as launching a WordPress blog. One of the reasons WordPress has gained such traction is that it has lowered the start up costs for running a powerful self-hosted web application. Omeka has sought to match that ease of installation and use.
Second, Omeka provides a modular software architecture, allowing the core code base to be extended easily through plugins and themes. Omeka's rich application programming interface (API) empowers people with a range of programming skills to participate in its open source community and expand its capabilities. Plugins extend Omeka's core functionality, bringing Web 2.0 technologies and approaches to academic and cultural websites that foster the kind of user interaction and participation that are central to scholarship and cultural heritage. Among those currently available or in the works are plugins that enable geolocation of collection items, user contributions, user tagging, Creative Commons licensing for collection items, and several multimedia display wrappers. Theme switching makes changing the look and feel of an Omeka website as easy as choosing or tweaking one of the many expertly designed templates from Omeka's online themes directory, or devising a new one of your own. Readers experienced in hacking WordPress themes or with even modest HTML, CSS, and PHP skills should have little trouble getting started with Omeka's simple, yet flexible, theme API.
Third, just as WordPress has provided easy to use yet powerful graphical interfaces for producing quality, well designed online text, we have been especially keen to focus on user interface design in building Omeka's backend administrative interface where collections and exhibits are created. Too much cultural heritage software has privileged functionality over usability. Omeka's clean and intuitive user interface incorporates the kinds of features and workflows that scholars and cultural heritage professionals expect. It is designed with end users in mind, allowing them to focus on content and interpretation rather than configuration or programming. Where we have anticipated or users have encountered problems, or where routines are necessarily complex, we have produced extensive wiki-style online documentation and screencast tutorials.
Just as important, however, are the ways in which Omeka diverges from WordPress and other content management platforms. First, Omeka's data architecture is designed to adhere to prevailing digital archival metadata standards and to enable interoperability with the back office digital collections management and repository software discussed at the beginning of this article. Omeka's Dublin Core metadata structure, Resource Description Framework (RDF), Open Archives Initiative (OAI), Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA-Lite) implementations, and its upcoming suite of data migration tools enables interoperability with existing digital collections systems. Moreover, Omeka's adherence to the U.S. government's Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility standards allows ordinary scholars and cultural heritage professionals to design fully accessible online exhibitions efficiently.
Second, the experience of working with Omeka is substantially different than blogging. Workflows in Omeka begin with collections rather than texts. When building an Omeka website, a user starts by uploading and describing items in his or her research collection, adding Dublin Core metadata, tags, and other item-level information through the step-by-step administrative add-item dialog. Once the collection is established, the user can then turn to building narrative exhibits that draw on these collections, placing items of choice alongside label text in pages and sections to form multilayered exhibits.
Finally, Omeka's end user outputs are both more variable and more structured than most blog powered websites. Full access to research collections as well as curated exhibits, multiple exhibits for a given set of collection resources, and the ability to separate archive design from individual exhibit design all set an Omeka website apart from a blog. Moreover, the greater complexity of the data found in described collections and exhibits rather than simply posts and pages requires a more powerful and configurable search interface. To meet this need, we have included an iTunes-style query builder for use on both public themes and the backend administrative interface.
Adoption and Roadmap
Omeka received its initial funding from the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services in October 2007. Supplemented with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on work done previously at CHNM, the Omeka team was able to release its first public beta in late-February 2008. In its first nine months of general release, Omeka has been downloaded more than 3,000 times and is being used by a diverse range of small and large universities, museums, libraries, and archives including the New York Public Library, the Missouri School of Journalism, the University of Arizona, the University of California School of Information, and the Hawaiian Historical Society. Examples of CHNM sites built with Omeka include the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, the Bracero History Archive, Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and Making the History of 1989. A showcase of these and other Omeka powered projects can be found on the main Omeka website.
Omeka's website is home to lively user forums and wiki-style documentation which provide community-based support for the product. We learned early on, both with the Omeka project and in our earlier work on the Zotero project, that aside from a good product, active community building is the most important part of running a successful academic open source project. We strongly believe that Omeka's robust open source developer and user communities will underwrite its long term stability and sustainability, and we are committed to growing and nurturing these communities. Several members of the Omeka team at CHNM are dedicated full- or part-time to community building activities, both among end users of the software and among the developer and hacker community. We actively encourage community members to donate their expertise, enthusiasm, and code (themes, plugins, patches, and additions to the core) back to the community through several channels on a top-tier get involved section of the Omeka website.
Early in 2009, Omeka will obtain its 1.0 release. Soon afterwards, we will begin work on a low cost, browser based subscription service. Here again the analogy is WordPress, where users can choose to download a server installable package at WordPress.org, or they can choose a hosted blog at WordPress.com. Likewise, Omeka.net will launch in late 2009, opening up the possibility of serious web publishing to even the smallest and least technically equipped museums, libraries, archives, and scholars.
We are also planning to provide federated search facilities for Omeka users interested in making information about their collections and exhibits discoverable through a unified search and browse service on the Omeka website. In the future we hope to expand these federated search capabilities to provide centralized open access downloads and long term preservation of distributed Omeka collections. We are also working to collaborate with other museum-centered open source projects such as CollectionSpace and OpenExhibits. Finally, we plan to continue building and supporting the development of new features, new plugins, and new themes to help the Omeka community keep moving forward.
Until now, scholars and cultural heritage professionals looking to publish collections-based research and online exhibits required either extensive technical skills or considerable funding for outside vendors. By making standards based, serious online publishing easy, Omeka puts the power and reach of the web in the hands of academics and cultural professionals. The Omeka team has worked to produce a platform that reproduces the ease of use and low barriers of blog software, but that incorporates the unique requirements of cultural heritage collections and more complex demands of scholarly narrative and exhibition. Readers interested in trying Omeka are encouraged to try it out in our open sandbox or to contact us through the Omeka user forums.