The Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism launched the Pictures of the Year International Archive over the weekend using CHNM’s Omeka web publishing software. The Archive, which contains nearly 40,000 historic photographs arranged by collection, chronicles more than fifty years of journalism history, including striking images of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. In future the Archive will feature thematic, museum-style exhibits using Omeka’s exhibit builder functionality. The POYi Archive features an elegant original Omeka theme and offers a good example of the kind of customizations and display choices Omeka enables. It also provides another example of the range of collections-based research being published with Omeka. Check it out!
Congratulations to the Omeka dev team (especially Jeremy Boggs, Kris Kelly, Dave Lester, and Jim Safley), which today announced the release of version 0.10 alpha, the first major release of Omeka since February’s 0.9.0. For those of you who don’t know about Omeka, it is CHNM‘s next generation web publishing platform for collections-based research, one that puts serious web publishing within reach of all scholars and cultural heritage professionals.
The alpha version includes a major reworking of Omeka’s data model to support unqualified Dublin Core and a complete overhaul of Omeka’s theme and plugin APIs. Omeka 0.10 alpha allows us to start work on a set of interoperability and data migration tools for CONTENTdm and other widely used repository and collections management software and stabilizes Omeka’s APIs to make it easier for community developers to build new plugins and themes. A gorgeous new admin theme will make using Omeka even easier for site administrators.
Omeka 0.10 alpha is available through the Omeka dev list for testing purposes only. We strongly discourage using version 0.10 alpha on a production site. We’re aiming for a stable public release of Omeka in late October. Stay tuned!
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.
I’m pleased to announce the New York Public Library has released its first online exhibition using the Omeka platform. Eminent Domain is a photographic installation chronicling the changing nature of urban space in New York City today. NYPL Labs is planning a series of projects using Omeka and its developers have become very active on the Omeka forums and dev list. I think I can speak for the entire team and say we’re very grateful for their help and impressed with the results of their first foray with Omeka.
Found History readers may be interested to know that Omeka version 0.9.1 has just been released. This is our first release since the initial public launch on February 20, 2008. It fixes more than 20 bugs, and our development team recommends that all users upgrade their existing Omeka installations. The API hasn’t changed since the 0.9.0 release, so existing themes and plugins should continue to work after the upgrade.
More on Omeka later in the month, in a special series about the aims, audiences, and thinking behind the software.
Yesterday I spoke at the 2008 conference of the National Humanities Alliance on a panel entitled “Federal Support for History.” The purpose of the talk was to give some concrete examples from our work at CHNM of the different funding sources available from the federal government to historians and public history projects. This was supposed to give audience members a better sense of the range of historical programs that the U.S. government supports in preparation for their meetings today on Capitol Hill for the 9th annual “Humanities Advocacy Day.”
Over the years, CHNM has received about half of its funding from federal sources. The largest number of federal grants have come from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which has funded the entire range of work done by CHNM: education projects (History Matters, World History Matters, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), public projects (Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, the Bracero History Archive), and research projects (our forthcoming study the potential of text-mining tools for historical scholarship). In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has become a major source of funding for our education projects, funding our five Teaching American History collaborations with local school districts and our forthcoming National History Education Clearinghouse. We are also increasingly working with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and Object of History. Rounding out the list is the Library of Congress, which (through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program), funds our Business Plan Archive/Birth of the Dot Com Era collaboration with the University of Maryland, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which has provided several years of funding for our Papers of the War Department 17840-1800 project.
During the 1990s, CHNM was almost entirely dependent on federal funding. In the past seven or eight years that situation has changed as we have been able to attract an increasing share of our funding from private foundations and other private sources. We are very grateful for the support of these private entities, but at the same time, I think it is important to stress that not all funding is the same. Just as private funds allow you to do certain things federal funds don’t, federal funding sources have some advantages over private sources. From my vantage point as a digital and public historian, there are at least two reasons why federal funding specifically is important to the continued work of historians and humanists.
First, federal funding allows—and increasingly demands—us to give all of our resources away at no cost. While our society is getting increasingly closer to eliminating the first digital divide, where network access was determined by demography, we are nevertheless seeing a second digital divide, where many of the best sources of networked information are available only by paid subscription. Small school districts, home schoolers, small businesses, and ordinary taxpayers without a university or corporate affiliation usually cannot afford access to important information resources like LexisNexis and ProQuest. By freeing us from the burdens of cost recovery that private information providers face and private foundations increasingly impose, federal funding helps us provide pertinent, high quality, open access information resources that reach not only the well heeled and well connected, but ordinary Americans.
Second, sometimes the only way to get an experimental or unproven, but promising project off the ground is with federal funding. Because federal funding is distributed through a process of peer review, a new idea is judged on its merits rather than on the basis of some prior relationship with the funding organization, as is often the case with private foundations. Usually this federal support consists only of modest seed money (e.g. NEH’s Digital Humanities Start-up Grants). But that small seed grant can be enough to show the potential of a given technology or approach, to produce a proof-of-concept that then can be taken to a private foundation for additional funding. Private foundations are much more likely to take on new grantees who have something more to show them than just a good idea and a business card. This model of seed money from the feds yielding longer-term private support has worked well for CHNM in several cases, including for History Matters and Zotero. It is essential if we want new ideas to become funded realities. Just as in Keynesian economics, sometimes the only entity that can serve the “pump priming” function is the federal government.
For these reasons and many others, it is important that sources of federal funding remain available to history and the humanities. Continued federal funding is essential to the future of history in this country whether you are a public historian, a digital historian, a scholar, or an educator, and whether you are a direct recipient of these funds or not. We all owe a debt to the National Humanities Alliance, to the National Coalition for History, and to our colleagues who took time today to participate in Humanities Advocacy Day and petition our government on behalf of history. Thanks, and good luck!
In an earlier post I wrote about the early buzz around Omeka, both in the forums and among education, museum, public history, and library bloggers. One thing I didn’t mention—and frankly did not expect—was the buzz about Omeka on Twitter, the popular SMS-centered microblogging, won’t-get-it-till-you’ve-used-it social networking platform.
Twitter has been getting a lot of attention lately as a tool for use in the classroom, including an insightful blog post and front-page video segment on the Chronicle of Higher Education website by University of Texas at Dallas professor David Parry. It turns out Twitter has also been a great way to build a community around Omeka—to get in touch with possible users, to keep in touch with existing users, to give the product a personality, and to provide information and support. Among other things, we have been answering technical questions using Twitter, connecting far-flung users with Twitter, and pointing to blog posts and press coverage on Twitter. Because the barrier to participation is so low—Twitter only allows messages of 140 characters or less—people seem more willing to participate in the discussion than if it were occurring on a traditional bulletin board or even in full length blog posts. Because every posting on Twitter is necessarily short, sweet, informal, and free from grammatical constraints, I think people feel freer just to say what’s on their minds. Because Twitter asks its users to respond to a very specific and very easily answered question—”What are you doing?”—it frees them (and us) from the painstaking and time consuming work of crafting a message and lets people just tell us how they’re getting on with Omeka. And because Twitter updates can be sent and received in many different ways from almost anywhere (via text message, on the web, via instant message), the Omeka Twitter community has a very active, very present feel about it.
I’m very encouraged by all this, not just for the narrow purposes of Omeka, but for digital humanities and public history outreach in general. Interactivity, audience participation, and immediacy are longstanding values of both public history and digital humanities, and Twitter very simply and subtly facilitates them all. The experience of the last week has proved to me that we should be doing this for all future projects at CHNM, not just our software projects like Omeka and Zotero, but also for our online collecting projects like the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, our public exhibitions like the forthcoming Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and our education projects like the forthcoming Making the History of 1989.
For now, if you’d like to join the Omeka Twitter community, you can sign up for a Twitter account and start following Omeka. If you’re not quite ready to dive in head first, or if you just want to keep an eye on what other Omeka followers are doing, you can simply subscribe to the “Omeka and Friends” public feed. Finally, if you want to see what I’m up to as well, you can find me on Twitter at (no surprise) FoundHistory.
Jeremy and Dave are at it again. This time on THATPodcast they give us a video introduction to Omeka. Sticking with their two-segment format, the first half of the show features a discussion (in part by me) of the aims and values that underlie Omeka. The second half features a very helpful step-by-step demonstration of downloading and installing Omeka on a server. Great stuff.
It has been only three or four days since we released Omeka to the wild, and already we’re seeing some amazing interest. As of this posting, Omeka 0.9.0 has been downloaded more than 200 times, has been blogged by at least 50 authors, and for a brief time made the del.icio.us homepage “hotlist.” Most exciting to me, however, is the traffic to Omeka’s support forums, which shows that people are really using the software. Most of what we’re seeing are installation difficulties, especially where users are trying to install Omeka on third-party, commercial hosting services like Bluehost and Lunarpages.* The good news is that most of these problems can be worked out relatively easily, and I encourage anyone who is having trouble to take a look at the Getting Started and Troubleshooting forum threads and to post your questions there. Our crack team of developers will be happy to help out. Omeka is still in beta, and as an open source project, we hope everyone will feel comfortable joining the forums, becoming active in the community of users and developers, and just generally helping us make the software better.
* Note: if you don’t already have a hosting account and are thinking of signing up for one to try Omeka, we encourage you to consider Dreamhost, where Omeka has been most thoroughly tested and where we know it works seamlessly.
As Steve Brier, Josh Brown, and Mike O’Malley pointed out in Episode 2 of History Conversations, CHNM’s late founder, Roy Rosenzweig firmly believed that it wasn’t enough for the historian interested in popular memory simply to be an analyst of popular historymaking. He or she also had to be an active practitioner of public history, making him or herself available to community, enthusiast, and other non-professional historians to help them in their efforts. True to Roy’s example and admonition, I aim to be both practitioner and analyst. But as the recent dearth of postings here on Found History attests, I have been doing a lot more practicing than analyzing lately.
Aside from general management stuff at CHNM, I have been spending most of my time and energy on Omeka. Just launched for general public download today, Omeka is CHNM’s latest software offering, a free and open-source platform for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. It complements CHNM’s successful Zotero project, providing cultural content producers with innovative, open-source presentation software in the same way that Zotero has provided cultural content consumers with innovative, open-source research management tools.
First and foremost, Omeka is intended to reduce the costs and improve the quality and functionality of online exhibitions. There are lots of software tools in the world of libraries and museums for managing and searching collections. There are almost none to help designers, webmasters, curators, librarians, and scholars publish and present those collections in rich, narrative, interpretive online exhibits. Omeka aims to fill this gap. Free, easy to use, and fully customizable through feature plugins and design themes, Omeka can bring rich, elegant, interactive, and “Web 2.0” ready exhibits to even the smallest and least well-funded of institutions—institutions for which high priced web design vendors are completely out of reach.
In the early days of the web, personal web pages were poorly designed, difficult to update and maintain, flat, and generally ugly. That all changed relatively recently with the advent and widespread adoption of blogging packages and services like WordPress, MovableType, and Blogger. Now a well designed, dynamic, interactive, and standards compliant personal website is just a few clicks away for practically anyone. Why should it be any different for cultural exhibits?
With Omeka, it shouldn’t.