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Using Omeka to Design Digital Art History Projects

2017 February 22
by Sheila

Using Omeka to Design Digital Art History Projects opening slideLast week at the College Art Association 2017 conference,  I chaired and presented at an Omeka-centered panel,  “Using Omeka to Design Digital Art History Projects.” The panel demonstrated how art historians, visual resource librarians, and material culturalists are designing digital art history projects with Omeka to teach threshold concepts in the field.

The panel comprised two members of the Omeka for Art Historians working group that I convened last year at CAA 2016, as an advisors for theme and plugin development geared to the needs of art historians and visual culturalists.

Katherina Fostano, Curator of Visual Resources, and Barbara E. Mundy, Professor of Art History, from Fordham University discussed their collaboration in teaching with Omeka and Neatline in art history classes, Image Mapping with Neatline for Class Projects. Kimon Keramidas, Associate Director and Clinical Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, at New York University, presented on “Object-Oriented Pedagogy and Digital Storytelling: The Content Management System as Nonlinear Narrative Platform”

I am so impressed with the innovative pedagogy implemented at Fordham and NYU that Omeka has been able to facilitate.

I discussed the working group’s goals, workflows, and products. All of this work was funded by a small development grant awarded by the Getty Foundation, because it was a direct outcome of ideas that Kimon and I developed following his guest lecture to RRCHNM’s Doing Digital Art History summer institute in 2014.

Below are the slides from my talk:

A Case for Digital Collections

2017 February 22
by Sheila

Collections-coverA new article I wrote, “A Case for Digital Collections” appears in the newest issue of the journal Collections. It is part of a special issue co-edited by Lauren Tilton and Brent Rogers that drew directly from our working group that discussed the intersections and divergences of public history and digital history at the National Council on Public History conference in 2015.

My favorite line: “By only publishing collections online without offering better ways to connect those collections to the many stories they can tell, museums are in danger of replicating the exhibit cases of the 19th century.”

Check it out: “A Case for Digital Collections.” Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals 12, no. 4 (2016): 381-90.

It may not be available online yet, contact me if you’re interested in a pre-print.

Collecting Quickly Online, MARAC Fall 2016

2016 November 7
by Sheila

This Saturday, I had the pleasure of participating in a Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference Fall 2016 panel organized by Meg Hogan, Lead Archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center, titled “Crowd Archiving: Working with the Public to Capture Event-Based Social Media Materials.” Together with Jessica Douglas, an archivist at the Maryland State Archives, and Ed Summers, University of Maryland, as facilitator, we discussed different ways and challenges of capturing and saving the digital conversations and records of contemporary events quickly before they disappear.

Below are my slides

Public, First in Debates in DH

2016 July 20
by Sheila

The revised version of my blog post, “The Public is Dead. Long Live the Public” from April 2015, appears in the 2016 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matt Gold and Lauren Klein as “Public, First.”

Debates 2016 features long-form essays and shorter pieces in six sections: Histories and Futures; DH and Methods: DH and Practices; DH and Disciplines; DH and Critics; and a forum on text analysis at scale.

Read the full text if the excerpt below grabs your attention.

As a public historian who has practiced in both analog and digital modes, I am attuned to the articles in the Chronicle and conversations—on Twitter, at meetings, and at conferences—from traditional and alt-academics who see digital and online projects as a means for sharing academic research with “the general public.” Skeptics ask why academics have lost their publics, while proponents point to popular digital humanities projects (Bender). It is important to recognize that projects and research may be available online, but that status does not inherently make the work digital public humanities or public digital humanities.Public history and humanities practices—in either digital or analog forms—place communities, or other public audiences, at their core.

Digital humanities scholars and practitioners are defined by the digital, which makes the difference in their humanities scholarship. Public historians and public humanities scholars are defined by the “public,” even when definitions of these practices are contested (National Council on Public History; Lubar). Suzanne Fischer offers a useful way of describing public history as “cracking open history as a democratic project, and doing it transparently, in public.” She also suggests that while public historians work with specific audiences on projects, they also have “a duty to serve particular communities” (“On the Vocation of Public History”). Public digital humanities, then, should be identified by the ways that it engages with communities outside of the academy as a means for doing digital humanities scholarship.

A Liberian Journey Launches

2016 March 23
by Sheila

I am very proud to announce the official launch of a project that has been in the works since 2013,  A Liberian Journey: History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation <>.

The project was developed in partnership with the Liberian Center for National Documents and Records Agency (CNDRA), the Indiana University Liberian Collections, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with generous support from the National Science Foundation.

This new digital public history site is meant to inform, raise questions, and invite stories about a transformational moment in Liberia’s past by making historical sources available for the first time in one place related to a 1926 Harvard scientific expedition to Liberia. The website features an exhibit on Chief Suah Koko, a noted woman leader in Liberia’s history; digital collections containing nearly 600 photographs, more than two hours of motion picture footage, oral histories, and documents linked to an interactive map. This effort marks the beginning of a recollection of Liberia’s lost history and for CNDRA represents a very important step in reawakening the Liberia national consciousness.

The project officially launched in Monrovia at a ceremony on Monday, March 21 with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in attendance, together with members of her cabinet and the Liberian legislature. How often does a head of state attend the launching of a digital history project?

Liberian President attends opening ceremonies

Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, attends launch ceremony at CNDRA.

In 1926, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company secured a ninety-nine year lease for nearly one million acres of land from the Liberian government to establish one of the world’s largest rubber plantations. To help the company understand the conditions and challenges it faced, Firestone sponsored a team of Harvard University scientists and physicians to conduct a four-month-long biological and medical survey. Loring Whitman, a Harvard medical student, served as the expedition’s official photographer, and his work includes the earliest known surviving motion picture footage of Liberia.

The moving images and still photographs are products of the American scientists and represent an early 20th Century colonial world view. At the same time, the footage and photographs offer a valuable historical record of the peoples, cultural traditions, and landscapes of Liberia at a time of rapid economic, cultural, and environmental change. Through this site, the project team offers these historical sources for reinterpretation and contextualization, and seeks multiple perspectives on the past by inviting Liberians to participate as content creators and historians of their lives.

A Liberian Journey homepage

This collaboration was always virtual, which is always challenging.
I worked closely with Web Developer and Designer, Ken Albers,  at RRCHNM and collaborated with the team for nearly three years over Skype, email, and phone calls to develop this digital public history and community-sourcing site that worked best for our primary audience in Liberia.

The site is designed minimally for mobile devices first, in the Omeka platform, to ensure that anyone can access the site especially in areas with limited internet connectivity. A Liberian Journey adds to the Center’s portfolio of global digital humanities projects.

Due to the Ebola crisis in 2014-15, we scaled back on developing multiple exhibits, since we planned for that to be a collaborative effort with our colleagues at CNDRA who were not able to work during that time. In the coming months, CNDRA will invite individuals to share meaningful stories and images about Liberia’s past. Additional online exhibits will combine community contributions with the Firestone expedition sources to give voice, meaning, and historical context to the lives, cultures, and histories of the Liberian people.

NexGen Omeka: Classic to S, the Next Generation of Omeka

2016 January 12
by Sheila

In November 2015, I represented the Omeka team at IMLS’s Focus conference held in New Orleans to share the latest developments in the Omeka software family.

Below are my slides, and the notes from my talk.

I am here representing the Omeka team at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and we are ever grateful to IMLS who has funded Omeka, from its earliest manifestation in 2007.

I’d like to take you on a brief journey showing you where Omeka started and where we are going related to collections data interoperability and our aspirations for offering GLAMs a way of onboarding to the Linked Open Data landscape.

In the early 00’s, we learned from collaborating with many cultural heritage institutions that there was a need for an easy-to-use, collections-based system that was free and open source, that also adhered to international metadata standards, while also offering organizations the opportunity to build an appealing front-end design that didn’t replicate the look of a database.

We found that we kept building the same type of relational database backend over and over, and decided to generalize it into what is now Omeka.

One of the most important guiding principles, that we are discussing today, is for the data to be portable and accessible in multiple ways.

Data that goes into Omeka, comes out: from the very simple, such as RSS, to more complex formats, including the newest addition, our data API.

Data sharing has always been a core requirement that shapes Omeka’s current development, as the project continues to grow and change.

To increase accessibility of the data, we added an API in Omeka 2.0:

With the API turned on, a user may import all public items and collections, including their files, to be used for other applications

With an API, it’s much easier to push and share content from an Omeka site with other software and applications.

For example, this in-gallery installation at the University of Connecticut Archives is a prototype of the Omeka Everywhere project, an IMLS-funded collaboration with Ideum and the UConn Digital Media and Design Lab. Collections are added into an Omeka site, the Omeka API talks with the API of the Open Exhibits software loaded on a touch table that can publish collections to touch tables for browsing and exploring. This creates continuity between the online and in-gallery experience.

Controlled Vocabularies: The Omeka team has worked to enhance the ease and standardization of metadata input, and over the years, through developing plugins that assist with metadata entry by offering controlled vocabularies, such as the Library of Congress Suggest for LC subject headings and then for all of the LCs authority files.

Our friends at UC Santa Cruz, through their work in the Grateful Dead Archive Online, greatly increased Omeka’s offerings in this area, beyond Library of Congress suggest, to include Getty Research Institute vocabularies to aid in the standardization of metadata entry across individual sites. This standardization, aides greatly when looking outside of one institutions and towards aggregating collections.

We are always grateful for this type of development from the broader Omeka developer community.

With all of this development occurring for Omeka Classic, we are simultaneously building the next generation software package, Omeka S.

Omeka S, which is a new software package designed with medium and larger libraries, archives, and museums in mind.

An outgrowth of lessons learned and feedback from some of Omeka institutional users, Omeka S shares many of the same goals as Omeka Classic (2.x), but none of its code.

Many features of Omeka S will be appealing both to cultural heritage institutions and academic and research libraries, including:

  • the ability to administer many sites from a single installation;
  • a fully functioning Read/Write REST API, which the system uses to execute most of its own core operations;
  • the use of JSON-LD as the native data format, which enmeshes the materials in the LOD universe;
  • Native RDF vocabularies that maximize data interoperability, by including Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) Terms; DCMI Type;The Bibliographic Ontology(Bibo); and The Friend of A Friend Vocabulary(FOAF).
  • and a set of modules that will aid integration with digital repositories, such as Fedora and DSpace, as well as with one of CHNM’s other major software project’s, Zotero.
  • Every Omeka S Resource (item, item set, media) has a URI–unique resource identifier, and will have the ability to embed URIs to connect to existing resources, such as those in DBpedia.

CHNM’s newest NLG grant increases the integration of Linked Open Data authority files in metadata description for digital collections:

  • We are building LOD vocabulary modules that will help users create descriptions that capitalize on Linked Open Data through the use of controlled authority files from the Library of Congress and the Getty Research Institute. The use of these standardized description values will increase the discoverability of the digital collections by linking them to the growing semantic web.
  • We are also including pathways for institutions to implement their own locally-controlled authorities that allow GLAMs to standardize their descriptions, and contribute to the development of new authorities that might eventually become standards in the field.

To increase the likelihood that newly created metadata for digital collections in Omeka-S can be smoothly transferred to key aggregators within the national digital platform, we are building a resource template that will make Omeka-S data DPLA- ready.

We will offer a basic resource description template based on requirements for the DPLA MAP v.4.0 and the Europeana Data Model, which we hope will help cultural heritage organizations more easily aggregate their data, without requiring messy crosswalks or major data transformations.

Please try Omeka-S!

We are still in the alpha development process, but we are making our newest builds available on GitHub after every 2 sprints, roughly every 4 weeks. This is not something that is quite ready for launching at scale, but we do seek feedback, particularly from our colleagues working in larger libraries and archive.

You may follow our progress, on our blog, in GitHub, or on Twitter (@omeka).

Thank you for your time, and thank you to IMLS for supporting Omeka’s new directions and its place in the national digital platform.