June 17, 2008

Omeka 1000

Omeka Just before the launch of the Omeka public beta in late February, my colleagues and I had a brief conversation about metrics for the project and what would constitute success. The number we settled on for the three year lifespan of our IMLS grant was 1000 downloads. A little modest maybe—10,000 was our pie-in-the-sky figure—but considering Omeka’s primary audience consists of cultural heritage institutions (as opposed to individual end users) we thought 1000 institutions in three years would constitute a fairly big splash.

Little did we know that we would reach our goal in matter of 10 weeks. By May we had passed our target of 1000 downloads, and our current count stands at more than 1300.

At the same time, we know that number of downloads isn’t a perfect measure of success. When it comes to assessing use of the software, just as important as how many is how well. We know we have to make sure that test installations don’t sit unused. In this regard, we are encouraged by the increasingly heavy traffic in our user forums, our Google Groups developers’ list, and our “sandbox” public test installation. People are really banging on the software, pushing it to its limits, finding and fixing lots of bugs. That means they are really using it, which is exactly what we want. Yet we also have to make sure that people are using those installations to full effect. Here we are working hard to improve our documentation, to provide a comprehensive set of screencast video tutorials, and to build and release a host of new, freely downloadable design themes and plugins. Finally, we are taking the tremendous amount of feedback we have received, both through these channels and through the many presentations and workshops we have given, and incorporating it into a major rewrite of the software itself—Omeka 0.10.0 is scheduled for release in late summer or early fall 2008.

In February I said that Omeka is intended for all. Some have said this is wishful thinking, that Omeka is still too complicated to be used by the smallest of institutions or individual enthusiasts, students, or scholars. Obviously I disagree, and I would make two arguments in response.

First, a big part of our plan is a hosted version of the software. Our model is WordPress. On the one hand, people with access to a server (or an account of one of dozens of shared hosting services) and some relatively modest technical skills can set up their own Omeka installation, just as they can download and install the WordPress server application. On the other hand, beginning in 2009, people without a server or the necessary skills will be able to sign up for an account at theirname.omeka.net and we will host the software for them, just as they can sign up for a hosted blog at theirname.wordpress.com.

Second, we’re going to try. We’re not willing to write small institutions off. To this end we are working one-on-one with small institutions such as the Laurel Grove School, which with our help will publish a document-based curriculum and virtual tour using Omeka. We are also reaching out more broadly through state humanities councils. Last month, for instance, I spent a day with Margie McLellan and Mark Tebeau at the Ohio Humanities Council presenting Omeka to a group of about 50 representatives from small and medium sized cultural heritage institutions from across the state. We are now engaged in further talks with the Council about ways to connect small institutions across Ohio with experienced Omeka users and developers in the state to form partnerships that will extend their capabilities. Our hope is that we develop a model that can be reproduced in states across the country, fostering not only wider use of Omeka and more professional online exhibitions, but also new partnerships between small cultural heritage institutions, humanities councils, local web designers, state colleges and universities, and others.

We don’t expect everyone to be able to use Omeka on his or her own. But collaboration has always been key to all digital humanities and cultural heritage work. Thus we’re working directly and indirectly to facilitate new models of collaboration around Omeka, and we hope these models will let let any institution or individual, in partnership with us or a third party and using the technologies and resources we make available, build standards-based, professional-looking, rich-content online collections and exhibitions.

That’s our goal and we’re sticking to it.

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