Working with OMEKA at DH@Guelph 2017

The DH@Guelph Summer Workshop was held at the University of Guelph the first week of May 2017. I attended the OMEKA Workshop, which was co-taught by University of Guelph Special Collections Librarian Melissa McAfee and Library Associate Ashley Shifflett McBrayne, along with a variety of guest presenters. The four-day workshop allowed participants to work on developing their own site.

OMEKA is a web-based exhibition software with both a .net and .org hosting. has a free basic plan and a tiered pay plan that grants access to more file upload space and theme options. For the purpose of the workshop we used with a trial-run of Platinum privileges, but I will be migrating my site to McMaster’s at the end of June.

More about the workshop, held every May, is available here.

I made the decision to experiment with OMEKA as a potential option for building my digital archive project, in part because it is fairly easy to build with minimal computing experience and a commonly used platform among historians and libraries to exhibit materials. For my project specifically, OMEKA allows me to display primary source materials collected from various archives during my field work in England and Uganda in one place. Further, the exhibit function of the software accommodates the inclusion of accompanying descriptions with the uploaded (and downloadable!) materials. A function which I use to append biographies of the intellectuals I study in my dissertation as well as short analyses on the sources themselves.

OMEKA has a both a front-end and back-end, like any website. The content and appearance of the site can be managed using the dashboard, which does not require any coding skills. The website is organized using tabs which are used to navigate. These are fully customizable from the back-end (to be discussed later in this post). This is what my website looks like from the front-end. I have included screen-shots throughout as it is incomplete and so has not yet been made publicly available.

OMEKA offers several options for displaying materials: Exhibits, Collections, and Individual Items.I used the exhibit function to define several areas of my research and pull together sources in one section of my website. The collections function can be used in a similar way, and using both functions may be useful if managing a large corpus of material. Below shows the two Exhibits I have set up.

The first includes biographies of each of the key African intellectuals I examine in my dissertation with .pdf files of their written works uploaded. At this stage the .pdf files are not OCR’d, and therefore not searchable, but it is my intention to make some of these documents searchable over the summer using Abbey FineReader (more to come on this and the challenges of OCR in a later post!). The second exhibit includes books written by European adventurers and missionaries about Uganda from the mid-19th to early 20th century. Most of these books have been digitized by the Internet Archive program, which means they are in the public domain (having been published before 1923) and available publicly online. The motivation for uploading them here then is not to make them accessible but to bring them together in one place and claim their relevance to the writing of Buganda’s intellectuals.

Exhibitions or collections are used to organize materials and employ a nesting function to navigate to more specific materials on the left side of the screen. Within these Exhibits are pages, which I have used in a two-tiered system. The first level of pages are for each intellectual, and then nested within those the second level has a page for each document written by each intellectual.

Attached to these secondary pages are Individual Items, which are the actual document, in my case .pdf files. OMEKA supports uploading a variety of other types of files, including various visual, audio and video file formats. Below you can see how the .pdf file, taken from the Internet Archive, is embedded in the page.

Some of the limitations of OMEKA is the customizability of its appearance. The version of the platform only offers seven possible themes. Without expertise in HTML or CSS coding there is very little that can be done to customize the appearance of your site. This is a good transition to a little discussion of how OMEKA functions from the back-end. As someone who is not proficient at computing and a true beginner to coding, OMEKA is a fairly easy tool to learn how to use. The back-end uses a Dashboard, like most web-based softwares, to manage content and appearance. This is what the Dashboard looks like.

The part of the back-end I want to spend the most time talking about is adding Individual Items (which includes uploading files) and creating Metadata for these items.

This is what metadata looks once completed.

There are many challenges to confront when creating metadata for items/objects/texts, which I will explore in a future blogpost.

There is a LOT of material out there on working with OMEKA, so if you are interested in this tool please explore beyond my non-expert overview above. The more popular OMEKA becomes in the DH community, the more debates there are surrounding its use. There are also a number of different web-based tools that do similar things (Drupal, WordPress), and may not require institutional financial support for hosting.  After working with OMEKA, I have determined it will work well as a prototype of my digital archive to show to potential parters/collaborators in Uganda to hopefully encourage their participation in a more robust and interactive future project. In the future, I hope to use Mukurtu as a repository and exhibition tool as it is specifically designed for indigenous knowledge preservation and addresses issues of ethical collaboration and cultural theft (read more here).


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