DH Tool Critique: Omeka.net

Website: http://www.omeka.net

Omeka.net is a web-publishing platform that is used to curate collections and to create digital exhibitions. Omeka.net is an offshoot of the powerful and popular content management system, Omeka (Omeka.org). Although Omeka.net provides the same functionality as Omeka, it is much easier to use and install, as it does not require the user to provide hosting or to look after their installation. However, it is limited in that using more than 500MB of space requires the user to pay for an account. Therefore, the free 500MB account is perfect for smaller projects, but for larger ones, it would perhaps be wiser to upgrade your account or to use Omeka.org.

Omeka is designed for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions and Omeka.net makes it easy to show off the items housed in your collection. You can even tell a story about an item using their exhibits plug in. The tool is useful for historians who wish to display key documents, archivists who would like to organize artifacts into categories, and professors, such as in English Literature and History, who want their students to learn about the multitude of choices that go into assembling historical collections.

Librarians would also find this tool useful for curating a collection that they want mounted on the web. One cool feature about Omeka.net is that it allows the user to digitize anything- physical objects, photographs, people…or even ideas! One cool example of the later is the Image of Research site that is shown here. The Image of Research is a multidisciplinary competition that celebrates the diversity and breadth of graduate and undergraduate student research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Graduate and undergraduate students submit entries consisting of an image and brief text that articulates the connection between their image, text, and research. One of the semi-finalist entries last year is pictured below:

ab5fc028fd38ca51e5b40f3a20305a19

Visualizing the Flow of Knowledge, Image Research Contest 2015. Web. 22 July 2015.

Another aspect of Omeka.net that makes it useful to librarians is that it employs metadata standards. In other words, it allows for complete control over how each item is catalogued in the collection. Objects in the collection can be cataloged with Dublin Core metadata fields and even georeferenced for display on a map. One example of how libraries have used Omeka.net to georeference an item in their collection is evident at Virginia Tech Special Collections Online. The map below showcases Richard Colburn’s travels using dates from his diary, which is part of their special collections (for an image of the map, see screenshot below).

Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 11.57.58 PM

Omeka.net is also relatively customizable. These sites come with a few built-in themes which define how the website looks including colour, font size, layouts, etc. However, unlike with other CMS’s, such as Drupal, for example, you cannot control every element of your site’s appearance (for more control over site appearance, users should install Omega.org). In comparison to Drupal Gardens, for example, another open source CMS that runs in your web browser, the options for customization seem quite limited – there are only a few theme options for your project.

omeka_new_theme

Omeka.net also includes several plugins that would be helpful for librarians. A few of these include COinS (which makes objects in Omeka accessible to citations management software, like Zotero), HTML5 Media (to play audio and video), and Library of Congress Suggest (which will auto-populate fields with LoC authority and subject headings). For an open source tool, it allows librarians remarkable control over the items in their collection.

Overall, Omeka.net is a handy tool for librarians, archivists, historians, and digital humanities enthusiasts alike who want to dabble with Omeka software and try their hand at building and showcasing a digital collection.

Rating: 4/5

Tool at a Glance:

Pros:

  • Free/open source content management system
  • No installation required (runs in web browser)
  • Ease of use
  • Uses Dublin Core metadata standards

Cons:

  • Limited space for free account (500MB)
  • Not very customizable (themes and plug ins)

References:

“Visualizing the Flow of Knowledge.” Image of Research, n.d. Web. 22 July 2015. Retrieved from http://imageofresearch.omeka.net

“Richard Colburn Diary.” Virginia Tech Special Collections Online, n.d. Web. 20 July 2015. Retrieved from https://digitalsc.lib.vt.edu/neatline/show/richard-colburn-diary

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DH & The Death of the Essay

In his blog post titled “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays,” Mark L. Sample describes how Digital Humanities can be applied in a more hands on and pedagogical way. Sample makes the claim that DH’s one great pièce de résistance, if you will, is that it has the power to supplant one of the traditional methods of student evaluation in the Humanities: the essay.

In his post, Sample makes the following statement:

 “Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects?”

Why must students be evaluated only by how well they write or by how they articulate their ideas using words only? The essay, Samples argues, as a main method of evaluation, does not allow students to think critically nor does it allow any room for flexibility and creativity. Why, Sample asks, do we ask students to put all their time and effort into writing papers that “mean nothing to no one” or that no one will ever read?

However, the bigger issue at stake here seems to be the shift from scholars as researchers to scholars as teachers. This change is perhaps due to the ever shrinking market for tenured professors and an increase in adjunct lecturers. Therefore, instead of a focus on academic publishing and solitary work, there is a need for scholars who can teach and who actively look for new ways to engage their students in the classroom. Why this shift in teaching styles and student evaluation? Because traditional teaching methods ultimately fail students. There are many different ways that students learn- by seeing, hearing, doing- and these, Sample argues, should be implemented in the classroom.

And this is where DH comes into play. In contrast to other less hands on methods, DH facilitates student engagement using otherwise incongruous material objects. This practice, in turn, allows students to develop critical thinking skills, as they must reflect on the building process and the product that they are creating. This more active learning style is one that Sample incorporates into his own teaching- an approach that he calls creative analysis:

With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write, toward asking them instead to weave—to build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product. I call this type of critical thinking creative analysis” 

How does DH allow for more active learning? Well, the answer is that it can foster student learning in a number of ways. One of these methods is through games and gamification. In his video games studies class, for example, Sample has his students design an abstract visualization of a video game. In his post, he showcases the work of one of his students, who creatively “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood. This method, Samples proudly claims, articulates the static nature of the video game and what the student was thinking, more than words or an essay ever could.

piratelog_med

With Sample’s blog post in mind, I’ve been trying to think of other ways that DH can be used to encourage more engaged and participatory student learning. A few active learning sessions that incorporate DH and that could be used in the classroom include working together to create an interactive map, having your class update a wiki, or using data visualization and text analysis to create a word cloud.

How would you use DH in a classroom setting?

References:
Sample, Mark L. “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays,” n.d. 20 June 2015. Retrieved from http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/42

Digging Deeper: Putting the H back into DH

Recently, a fellow MLIS friend and I were discussing what classes we are taking for our last term here at Western. I mentioned that I was taking a special topics course- LIS 9372: Digital Humanities and Library and Information Science and she asked me: “What is Digital Humanities?” As a former tried and tested Humanities scholar (BA and MA in English Literature), I’ve heard the term thrown around on multiple occasions and in a few English departments over the years. At Queen’s, I even had the chance to work a bit on a DH project of sorts. For a course on Web Design, my classmates and I spent some time creating a web page and writing code for an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, when my friend asked me to define what is meant by the term Digital Humanities, I had a hard time coming up with a response. Does it go beyond digitizing canonical texts and making them freely accessible to the public? Or does it have to do more with the tools themselves? And how is humanities used in this context? Finally, what implications does DH have for the humanities as a discipline? Needless to say, I’m still working on a response to her question.

In “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You,” Adeline Koh discusses a common perception regarding DH- that engaging in and with digital humanities projects will “save” struggling humanities departments. Apparently, there exists the school of thought that DH is going to add a new sense of purpose and relevancy to the discipline. Interest in the humanities will soar, faculty will gain research grants, and enrolment will increase exponentially. That is the dream. Perhaps, that is even the dream here at Western, where they just started a new Digital Humanities program in 2012- the first program of its kind in Canada. Koh states, however, that instead of helping to mitigate the financial cuts and setbacks of Humanities departments, Digital Humanities, as it exists currently, will only serve to accelerate their decline. Why? Because DH is focused too much on the how and not the why– that is on the tools and methodologies employed over the pedagogy and social implications of defining itself as a discipline. This oversight is mostly due to the fact that DH has its roots in humanities computing. As a result, DH projects have mostly been concerned with the digitization of texts, text encoding and markup, tools, big data, and topic modelling. However, by failing to get away from its roots and methodology…

Digital Humanities is not going to save the humanities from the chopping block. It’s only going to push the humanities further over the precipice. Because these methods alone make up a field which is simply a handmaiden to STEM – Koh, 2015

Koh posits that digital humanists should be more concerned with a new movement of DH, one that has the H, humanities itself, at its centre. The humanities, she states, has always been preoccupied with the study of how people process culture and ideas and scholars have questioned the methods used to document these ideologies. Therefore, one way that we can bring the H back into DH is to focus more on the fringe movements and consider the social implications of what we’re making- or maybe, even more importantly, what we have yet to create. Why is it, Koh asks, that we often only choose to digitize texts from canonical authors (read: white, male authors)? Why do we ignore class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality- issues that are not peripheral, but of primary importance to the humanities and, by extension, to DH?

These are great questions and, for the most part, I agree with the position that Koh takes in her article. I think that the root of her identity crisis question lies in the fact that, in the humanities, we have continuously defined ourselves in terms of what we are not. We have relied on binary oppositions (such as humanities vs. science for example) instead of embracing our interdisciplinary nature. And I think that when we become more open to ambiguity, we will become less exclusionary towards other groups and a bit closer to defining DH- that is a DH with the H equally present.

What is Digital Humanities? Sorry E—-, I’m still not sure. But when I do finally get back to you, I’ll try to define it in terms of what DH is- instead of what DH is not.

References:
Koh, Adeline. “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.” Hybrid Pedagogy (April 19, 2015): n.p. Web. 30 May 2015.