A Guide to Digital Edition and Digital Exhibit Platforms

A Guide to Digital Edition and Digital Exhibit Platforms
DS Coordinator Veronica Litt developed a guide to digital edition and exhibit platforms available at Mac

Are you interested in public scholarship and digital tools? Do you want to build a digital exhibit to share your work, but aren’t sure where to start? In this post, we overview six platforms available at McMaster. Read through this brief guide and determine which is best suited to your project.

GitHub Pages logo

GitHub Pages

Overview: GitHub is a free, open-source platform that lets you create websites and host files.   

Availability: Free to use; requires a free GitHub account.

What it does well: As a built-in function of GitHub repositories, GitHub Pages allows you to generate websites using source files hosted in your GitHub repository. Your materials and website are hosted on GitHub servers free-of-charge, which eliminates barriers related to cost and self-hosting. Source files are shared publicly, allowing others to reuse and remix materials when a permissive license is applied.

Challenges: GitHub Pages are generated from source files developed in Markdown, HTML, or a hybrid of both. Markdown is a lightweight and simple markup language for creating web content, but requires more effort than WYSIWYG web editors like WordPress and Omeka. A variety of stock templates are available on the web, but further customization may be required to meet a desired aesthetic. It also has limited storage capacity, so can’t accommodate many, very large files.

How long will the project last? Theoretically, until GitHub shuts down.

Accessibility Considerations: Most content is accessibility-friendly, but accessibility compliance varies with the template used.

Example Project: Digital Grainger (digital-grainger.github.io)

Resources: Intro to GitHub Pages module

MacSphere logo


Overview: MacSphere is McMaster University’s Institutional Repository (IR). The service aims to bring together all of a University’s research under one umbrella, to preserve and provide access to that research. The research and scholarly output included in MacSphere has been selected and deposited by the individual university departments and centres on campus. Through MacSphere you can find articles, conference proceedings, theses & dissertations, archival materials and much more. MacSphere is a portal to interdisciplinary research at McMaster.

Availability: Most of the content in MacSphere is free to use, with a few exceptions. The service is available for depositing to all faculty, students, and staff.

What it does well: The submission process is quite simple, in most cases no special approval is required, it accepts any type of content and files. Google and Google scholar index the content frequently and it ranks it high.

Challenges: It does not handle very large files well.

How long will the project last? MacSphere is a repository that intends to keep things available in perpetuity. Theoretically, this is a straightforward path towards long-term preservation of a digital project.

Accessibility Considerations: Unfortunately, not all content in MacSphere is accessible.

Example Project: The Sherman Centre uses MacSphere to archive key documents. “The Jews of Stuhlingen” is an example of an archived website.

Omeka S logo

Omeka S

Overview: Omeka S is a free and open-source digital curation and web publishing platform. It creates a local network of independently curated digital exhibits built using digital artefacts (which might be facsimiles of physical artefacts) and their associated metadata.

Availability: Free to use. The Omeka S instance at McMaster requires a McMaster log in; Omeka Classic does not.

What it does well: Omeka S is great for building online exhibits. Originally envisioned for museum and gallery use, it excels at providing a digital simulacrum of walking through a physical exhibit with different displays and interpretive panels. Users have access to a variety of aesthetic templates for exhibits which customise their look and feel. This software is an especially great choice for curators working with physical objects and documents.

Challenges: Omeka is built using a large number of extensions and dependencies which can be inconsistent (or at worst hilariously non-functional). Its core service set runs well, but more elaborate media requirements and curatorial approaches run a higher risk of problems.

How long will the project last? Like all software, Omeka S goes through periodic versioning cycles which can have major impacts on forward and backward capability. Think in terms of years, not decades.

Accessibility Considerations: Not all Omeka themes may be WAVE compliant.

Example Project: “To Ask the Proper Questions:” The History of Science as Told by Books

Resources: Intro to Omeka S module

Pressbooks logo


Overview: Pressbooks is an open source online book and document publishing platform. Pressbooks can be used to create books, guides and other materials that are accessible across platforms and devices. The EDU version of Pressbooks has built-in features such as H5P, to create interactive components, hypothes.is for collaborative note-taking and annotation, and academic themes and scientific notation.

Availability: Provincially-funded. All Ontario post-secondary institutions have free access to the education version of Pressbooks. Requires Single-Sign-On (SSO) using McMaster login credentials.

What it does well: Pressbooks is an easy-to-use platform built on WordPress, enabling additional plugins and functionality. Initially developed for online publishing of open textbooks, it is flexible enough that it can be adapted to present other materials such as modules, lessons, lab manuals, and more. No software needs to be downloaded, and various roles can be created to enhance author/editor/contributor collaboration. There is unlimited means to edit content as well as the ability to clone another Pressbooks published work for easy adaptation and customization. Pressbooks content provides a clean user interface that is responsive across mobile devices and browsers, can be exported to a multitude of various file formats (PDF, EPub, WebBook) and integrates open-licensing selection. Because it is open source, there is a vibrant support community available.

Challenges: As Pressbooks was initially developed to published book content, the organization structure consists of “Parts” and “Chapters” rendering it at times inflexible for different approaches to laying out content. Additionally, the themes are limited, and any custom design tweaks can present a challenge, particularly if updates are done platform-wide. Importing from Word/HTML is also clunky and there is no ability for real-time editing across multiple users. If a user wants to embed videos and other iframe resources inside their publication, there are strict parsing rules that require the source to be allow-listed (e.g., MacVideo).

How long will the project last? Pressbooks should be available over the long-term, with periodic updates.

Accessibility Considerations: Pressbooks is committed to accessibility and tests the platform frequently using assistive technologies such screen readers, WebAIM Wave tool bar, colour contrast analysis and web accessibility testing browser extensions. Because Pressbooks is built on WordPress, it benefits from WordPress conforming to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 at level AA. The admin interface includes accessibility features such as theming, sitemap, headings and higher contrast colour schemes.

Example Project: Liberated Learner  – a Trent University-led project that McMaster collaborated on, and recipient of Best OER Award from Open Education Global. Other great Pressbooks examples can be found in this “best of 2022” round-up.

StoryMaps logo


Overview: ArcGIS StoryMaps is a digital storytelling tool that combines interactive maps with text and multimedia content.

Availability: Requires an ArcGIS account. McMaster organizational accounts are available to current students, staff, and faculty at no cost. For those without institutional access, free public accounts are available (personal, noncommercial, nongovernmental use), as well as paid subscriptions.

What it does well: ArcGIS StoryMaps is user-friendly with no prior knowledge of mapping or programming required. It easily integrates content from other ArcGIS tools, such as maps and other web applications.

Challenges: Certain features in ArcGIS StoryMaps are in beta and some features may not be available with a public account.

How long will the project last? ArcGIS StoryMaps projects will last an indeterminate amount of time, subject to maintenance and availability of the software.

Accessibility Considerations: Not all StoryMap formats may be WAVE compliant.

Example Project: See Esri’s collection of ArcGIS Storymaps as Virtual Exhibits, Stanford University Library’s exhibit of mining maps, titled Pancakes & Silver, the winning application for Esri Canada’s App Challenge from McMaster University’s School of Earth, Environment, and Society, and Western University’s exhibits for a course on The History of the Book

Resources: Intro to ArcGIS StoryMaps modules

Timeline JS logo


Overview: Timeline is a user-friendly web platform that allows you to build interactive, visually pleasing timelines. The platform has fields for text, images, videos, and audio, making it a dynamic choice with plenty of flexibility for the user.

Availability: Free; does not require a McMaster log in.

What it does well: Represent chronologies and progressive historical narratives with multimedia and minimal text.

Challenges: Timeline should not be text-heavy; the app is most effective when the user pairs snappy, concise text with multimedia. The other main challenge is not unique to Timeline: it is the general problem of indexing self-published digital editions/digital exhibits and more broadly, bringing attention to the exhibit/making it discoverable. 

How long will the project last? Timeline hosts projects. Ostensibly, they will be hosted until the app closes. If you would like to save a copy beyond Timeline’s internal servers, there may be a possibility of archiving a Timeline on MacSphere as MacSphere can host saved webpages. They are not easily exported into PDFs because of the multimedia possibilities of the platform. A screen recording of a user moving through the timeline could work as a way to archive the project, in a pinch.

Accessibility Considerations: Timeline may not be WAVE compliant.

Example Project: Timeline has a collection of example projects available for browsing: Timeline (knightlab.com)

Thank you to our colleagues and collaborators for helping us assemble this guide! This list was co-written by Jay Brodeur (GitHub Pages), Myron Groover (Omeka S), Christine Homuth (StoryMaps), Joanne Kehoe (PressBooks), Veronica Litt (Timeline JS), and Gabriela Mircea (MacSphere).

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