There is no doubt that the enormous technological developments of recent decades have fundamentally changed how we ‘do history’. In particular they have created a plethora of new possibilities for the preservation and presentation of historical and archival materials. While this is primarily positive, enabling the preservation and display of historical documentation that may otherwise be lost forever, it is not without challenges. Foremost amongst these for historians is assessing what digital tool or tools to use for capturing, analysing, presenting and sharing this material.
In Digital History Cohen and Rosenzweig explore how “new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present and teach about the past.” The book is designed essentially to be a practical handbook on how to create digital history. In the introduction they stress that “we need to critically and soberly assess where computers, networks, and digital media are and aren’t useful for historians…..in what ways can digital media and digital networks allow us to do our work as historians better?”
If one agrees that, on balance, it is worth doing history digitally, then how does one go about it? How do we choose from the plethora of tools available? For my work I am particularly interested in the development of digital archives and in digital tools that enable the storage, display and sharing of digitised materials. However, there seems to be some confusion and disagreement about what a digital archive is not to mention what are the best digital tools to use to create one. There are many tools, both open source and commercial, to choose from. As Carolyn Li-Madeo states: “Digital Archives are easier to create than ever before, utilizing content management systems such as Omeka, Drupal, Collective Access or even WordPress, libraries and institutions can share and organize their collections through the web.”
A key challenge for me has been deciding what tool to use for storing, presenting and sharing the digital artefacts I will include in the LGBT Archive I am developing. I explored a number of other Digital Archives to see what tools they were using. As part of this exploration I made contact with some of the people responsible for the establishment or maintenance of some of these sites, including leading LGBT scholar and author John D’Emilio of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Anthony Cocciolo of the Pratt Institute in New York.
I have been particularly impressed by www.outhistory.org – a comprehensive digital archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender history in America. The OutHistory website is based on Omeka. OutHistory was created by Jonathan Ned Katz, author of the ground-breaking Gay American History and many other books on the history of sexuality. Given the development of the web Katz saw “the possibilities for LGBT history to reach larger audiences than ever before. He also imagined the site as a place of active community participation in the discovery and creation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history. Amateur and professional historians, those based in colleges and universities and those working on their own, those focused on a particular topic and those with wide interests: all of us could have a forum where we put our research to share it with others, and where others could share and add to it as well.”
OutHistory received a number of grants that facilitated development, beginning in 2005. Katz expanded the site in collaboration with the Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York and, from 2011, with John D’Emilio, at the University of Illinois Chicago. This funding and institutional backing has enabled OutHistory to be developed into a substantial and particularly impressive web resource. Claire Potter is currently co-director of OutHistory.org. A lot of people hours have been made available to further the development and maintenance of the site, contrasting sharply with my situation where I am trying to develop an archive as essentially a solo venture.
I have also explored http://herstories.prattsils.org/omeka/ – a digital archive that is linked with the Lesbian Herstory Archive in Brooklyn. This website, which is also powered by Omeka, is the product of a digitisation project undertaken by graduate students enrolled in the Projects in Digital Archives courses taught by Anthony Cocciolo at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science. In conjunction with the Lesbian Herstory Archives, students have worked to digitise audio and visual recording from 3,000 audiocassettes and VHS tapes in the Archives’ collection. The project began in 2010. So once again it is an Omeka based website that is being developed with institutional backing and with a lot of people time available to digitise and upload content.
The Plymouth LGBT Archive http://plymlgbtarchive.org.uk is powered by WordPress. It is an award winning community archive that is “shining a light on the rich life and histories from the Plymouth LGBT communities past and present.” The Plymouth LGBT Archive gained a prestigious national award from the Community Archive and Heritage Group (CAHG) and has also received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Lottery Funding. It has links with Plymouth University. The website has a notice seeking volunteers to help to gather, digitise and upload data to the website.
I also explored the Hilda Tweedy website http://www.hildatweedyarchive.org/. This uses TimelineJS to display a timeline of key events in Hilda Tweedy’s life. The timeline is linked to an Omeka website where additional artefacts and exhibits are stored and displayed.
Given that most of the websites I explored used either Omeka or WordPress, I decided to explore these tools further and to try to assess their relative value for my project. I tried to assess some of the benefits and limitations of each and explore why people have chosen one over the other.
WordPress is promoted as “web software you can use to create a beautiful website or blog. We like to say that WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time.” WordPress was begun as a blogging system in 2003 and has since evolved to a full Content Management System. WordPress has an impressive share of the market. In 2012 Dot Com Infoway showed WordPress having 54.4% of market share of various Content Management Systems. WordPress claims that it “powers more than 17% of the web – a figure that rises every day.”
Omeka was developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for History and New Media at George Mason University. It is a “free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions.” The word Omeka itself is a Swahili word “meaning to display or lay out wares; to speak out; to spread out; to unpack.” Omeka accounts for a far smaller market share than WordPress: “Since we launched Omeka in its alpha form, it has been downloaded over 10,000 times, and institutions and individuals launched more than 100 new websites with many more in development.”
Both WordPress and Omeka are open-source. Both can be used as Content Management Systems (CMS). A CMS “is a web application that makes content authoring and content delivery easy. It enables even non-technical users to efficiently build a website, streamline the web publishing procedures and quickly deploy them, creating a content-rich website.” A Content Management System may serve as a central repository containing documents, movies, pictures, phone numbers, scientific data. CMSs can be used for storing, controlling, revising, semantically enriching and publishing documentation.
Jason Kucsma, Kevin Reiss, Angela Sidman have suggested that Omeka has built upon WordPress’s success: “Omeka’s developers appear to have taken design inspiration from WordPress’s success as a general purpose open-source content management system. WordPress is widely known for its ease of installation and high-level of functionality.”
However Omeka is marketed as much more than a Content Management System. Omeka claims to fall at a crossroads of Web Content Management, Collections Management, and Archival Digital Collections Systems:
Some people see Omeka as THE standard for digital archives. In discussing who is Omeka’s competition, Tom Scheinfeldt states: “The easy answer is there is no competition. Omeka’s mix of ease of use, focus on presentation and narrative exhibition, adherence to standards, accommodation for library, museum, and academic users, open source license, open code flexibility, and low ($0) price tag really make it one of a kind. If you are a librarian, archivist, museum professional, or scholar who wants a free, open, relatively simple platform for building a compelling online exhibition, there really isn’t any alternative.” It is important here to remember that Tom Scheinfeldt works at the Roy Rosenzweig Centre for History and New Media at George Mason University where Omeka was developed!
To download WordPress from wordpress.org you need a web host and basic requirements including PHP and MySQL. Once installed it is completely customisable and can be used for whatever purpose you want. This takes minimal time and know-how. Alternatively you can use wordpress.com; this is less flexible than wordpress.org but “lets you get started with a new and free WordPress-based blog in seconds.” http://en.support.wordpress.com/com-vs-org/ provides a comparison between wordpress.org and wordpress.com. WordPress’ key strengths are its simplicity and flexibility: “WordPress combines simplicity for users and publishers with under-the-hood complexity for developers. This makes it flexible while still being easy-to-use.”
It is necessary to have a LAMP server to install omeka.org. LAMP is an acronym of the various element of a solution stack suitable for building heavy-duty websites. L – Linux (operating system); A – Apache (web server); M – MySQL or other Database Management System; P – PHP, Perl or Python (scripting language). It is also possible to use XAMPP, which is a cross platform solution stack. Using omeka.org allows the greatest flexibility to customise, with a wide range of themes and plug-ins available.
For those who don’t have a LAMP or XAMPP server, Omeka developed omeka.net which allows you to develop and deploy an Omeka website without having your own server. There are fewer themes and plug-ins available and your options are determined by which plan you buy into or if you take the free basic plan. http://info.omeka.net/about/ provides a comparison of the features and requirements of omeka.org and omeka.net.
In comparing WordPress and Omeka, one of the key factors for potential users is the question of how easy it is to install and use. To make the most of Omeka’s potential for digital archives it is best to use omeka.org on a LAMP server. This requires some degree of technical skills and know-how. “A basic familiarity with Apache web server and MySQL database server administration is required for a successful installation. For a user comfortable with setting up LAMP applications, an Omeka installation can be efficiently accomplished in a very short amount of time. For novice web developers installation may be more challenging.” Michael J Cripps “Omeka or WordPress, Omeka or ……”
Michael J Cripps considers whether to use Omeka or WordPress as part of an advanced humanities seminar called “Doing Humanities Digitally” in the University of New England, Maine. “I have always wondered whether it (Omeka) is really better/more powerful/more suitable/etc. than something like WordPress, a CMS/blog tool I use regularly and that is pretty easy to manipulate for a range of purposes.” Cripps encountered some challenges in installing Omeka in contrast to WordPress, which is very easy to install. “Installation was not as easy as I had hoped. This isn’t Omeka’s fault, really. It had more to do with some PHP settings that I didn’t know how to tweak/adjust. But I would estimate it took about 12 hours over several days to actually get the CMS to behave in a way that enabled me to test the tool. WordPress, in contrast, is included in many webhost packages, making it a truly one-click installation.”
WordPress, with its ease of installation and use, has provided many people, myself included, with our first foray into the world of webpage creation and maintenance. This provides a degree of comfort and familiarity that can make people reluctant to try to learn a new and seemingly more complex tool like Omeka. This combines with the fact that WordPress is so widely used and so many people are familiar with it.
AgnesL initiated an online discussion on the Omeka discussion forum about whether to use Omeka or WordPress for the development of digital archive for a small museum in Africa. Following some discussion and feedback she commented that “We have decided to go onto WordPress because:
– this is a system I know best and it is easier than learning new one
– there are plenty of freelancers who know it.”
However one of Omeka’s main strengths is how it handles metadata – the data about the data that allows it to be searched and found. Cripps comments: “Dublin Core baked into Omeka makes it scream “legit” DH tool. This feature alone puts it ahead of WordPress …. In fact, the entire process of adding materials to Omeka foregrounds good description practice. It isn’t sexy, but the GUI effectively tells users to get their Dublin Core metadata in first.” While Dublin Core is the default metadata setting on Omeka, it is possible to use other metadata systems in Omeka. In assessing Omeka, Kucsma, Reiss and Sidman comment: “Another feature which project staff found attractive was Omeka’s strong and flexible approach to metadata representation. Libraries can work with either the default Dublin Core set, import other metadata sets of their choosing, or create their own customized metadata vocabulary.”
Another of Omeka’s strengths is its ability to display and interpret the data stored within it. Lockart comments that “Omeka has an “Exhibits” plugin that allows one to use information from the collections Omeka contains to add interpretation. It seems to me that this is a particularly useful part of Omeka, and provides helpful separation of data from presentation.” However Kucsma et al found Omeka to be difficult to use. “We experienced a good deal of frustration navigating through the interface to create records. We also had serious concerns about the ability to create consistent and detailed metadata within the administrative interface……. Omeka’s search and retrieval capabilities also need to improve for it to become a more fully realized digital collection management tool.” Some of these challenges have been addressed since this article’s publication in 2010.
Omeka is better placed than WordPress in terms of its capacity to store as well as display data. Steve Lockart suggests that Omeka was developed “specifically to bridge the gap between appropriately rigorous digital storage and displaying collections of material.” He goes on to discuss the benefits and importance of “the separation of the long-term storage of digital artefacts from their interpretation and display.” He suggests using Dspace for storage of data and digital artefacts.
According to the DSpace website, it is the software of choice for academic, non-profit, and commercial organizations building open digital repositories. It is free and easy to install “out of the box” and completely customizable to fit the needs of any organization. DSpace preserves and enables easy and open access to all types of digital content including text, images, moving images, mpegs and data sets.
Stevan Lockart suggests using DSpace for the storage of data and using a content management system like WordPress or Drupal for the display and interpretation of the data. “DSpace can, of course, simply be browsed for content, but from time to time, it may be desirable to raise a project to curate and interpret information contained in DSpace. I have always thought the display and interpretation requirement is often a short-term one, in comparison. So to my mind, a content management system like WordPress or Drupal would be perfect for such interpretation, simply dipping into DSpace to select the conformation to display.” Using the combination of WordPress and DSpace could rival Omeka’s capacity for data storage and exhibition.
Looking back to the Digital Archive websites I explored, it seems that those using Omeka tend to have more funding and people available to work on them that the WordPress websites which are either individually or community based, with less people time available for the digitisation and uploading of data. Kucsma, Reiss and Sidman comment that “Omeka is very well-positioned within its target market of small to medium-sized institutions that need an easy-to-deploy, effective, professional tool to make digital library, archival, and museum content available on the web. Perhaps Omeka is best suited to institutions that wish to develop digital archives, while WordPress may be easier to use for an individual or community group with fewer resources and people time available to work on the development of the archive. This is not to suggest, however, that websites and digital archives developed using WordPress are any less noteworthy than those developed by Omeka.
It would appear that many people find WordPress easier to install and use than Omeka. There is a sense of familiarity given the fact that more people use WordPress and that it has a significant market share. WordPress’ potential for the development of digital archives is increased if it is used in conjunction with a storage system like DSpace. WordPress provides a wide range of themes and plug-ins that enable the development of interesting and engaging displays.
Omeka certainly provides a tool to develop complex and comprehensive digital archives. Installing and using it can present more of a challenge for many people, especially those less familiar with computer technology. Omeka provides a more complex system than WordPress and is much more that a Content Management System. Its particular strengths are the way it handles metadata, with Dublin Core as the default setting, and the ability it provides to develop and display Exhibits. It seems however to be best suited for use by institutions that have more people available to work on its development and maintenance.
As I work towards developing a LGBT Digital Archive, it is clear that it will take time to set it up properly and maintain and update it. The work of sorting, capturing, storing, transcribing, tagging and displaying the data that is stored in the Arthur Leahy collection, along with capturing audio and video LGBT oral histories, is a huge project that will take years to complete. I am continuing this work as part of a PhD in Digital Arts and Humanities in UCC. It is likely that, long-term, I will opt to use an Omeka based website, as this provides good options for the storage and display of data, for storing metadata and for creating more complex and comprehensive archives. I have begun to develop an Omeka site and am exploring if it will work for the archive I am trying to develop.
I have also developed a WordPress site CorkLGBTHistory.com I am using this site to trace a chronology of the development of the LGBT community and to showcase some of the materials from the archive. I am also using this WordPress site to stimulate interest in the archive and to encourage people to comment and contribute to the developing archive.
Initially I explored using TimelineJS to develop a chronology of key events in the history of the LGBT community in Cork. I was inspired by the Timeline that forms part of the Hilda Tweedy website. TimelineJS allows you to display a chronology of events, with linked data that can be text, photographs, audio or visual. It can pull in media from a variety of sources and has built-in support for Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Dailymotion, Wikipedia, SoundCloud and more. You can then insert linked text to explain and contextualise the date in the timeline.
One glitch with TimelineJS is that each time you click on the data and then try to come back to the timeline, it brings you back to the beginning, not to the point at which you had exited. This can be frustrating for the user. I also found that the linked text was best suited for short one or two-line descriptions, which I found to be too limited for the descriptions or transcriptions I wanted to attach. Given that I am dealing with a largely unknown and invisible history, I found that it was often impossible to explain an event in one or two lines. Given these limitations I decide to explore alternatives for developing my ‘showcase’ website.
I turned to WordPress to explore whether it would be a useful tool to develop my initial ‘showcase’ website. I had learned to use WordPress in the tutorials as part of the Masters in Digital Arts and Humanities. I was a very reluctant blogger! My first post on my WordPress site https://orlaegan.wordpress.com/ reads as follows:
“Ok so Paul is encouraging us to blog so I’ll give it a go!”
Eventually I learned to see the value and benefits of WordPress and used it to discuss my on-going work on developing the LGBT archive, as well as other creative pursuits in relation to a theatre company and play I was involved with. My blog was nominated in two categories, Arts and Culture and Best Newcomer, on the long list for the 2014 Irish Blog Awards!
Given my familiarity with WordPress and the ease with which a new website can be created, I decided to create a CorkLGBTHistory website. While I created this in WordPress, I bought the domain name www.corkLGBThistory.com and attached this to the WordPress site. I felt that this was a more user-friendly and easily searchable name for the site and less cumbersome than the original corklgbthistory.wordpress.com name created in WordPress.
I decided to create a chronology of key events from the 1970s to early 1980s and display a range of data associated with these events. I am initially concentrating on the 1970s and 1980s but this can easily be built on and expanded. I searched through and explored a number of different themes for the WordPress site and decided that the Columnist theme best suited my purposes.
The posts in WordPress allow me to focus on particular time periods or events, to provide information on these with associated photographs, transcriptions, video or audio material. It also allows me to show what information I am missing and to ask those interacting with the site to provide me with information or data if possible. I have had early success with this. Within days of launching the site someone contacted me, offering to provide me with information I had stated I was missing.
I located a number of audio oral history interviews I had conduced some years ago as part of my earlier work on the history of the LGBT communities in Cork. One of these was with a gay man, who has since died, who had been actively involved in the gay community in Cork from the early 1970s. These interviews are stored on cassette tapes and I am in the process of digitising, editing and uploading these so that clips can be used as part of the CorkLGBTHistory website. I also plan to capture video recordings of oral histories to be included on the website as it develops. I have also obtained permission from Frameworks Films to upload their film Out and About on the website. Out and About will be shown at the forthcoming LGBT History Festival in Manchester in February 2015.
The development of the Cork LGBT Digital Archive is a work in progress. It will involve on-going assessment and evaluation of the most appropriate methods and tools for digitising, storing and sharing data for the archive. As my learning and skills increase, and as new tools and methods are developed, I will have to be open to evaluating how I am doing my work and if there are ways that I can do it better.