Omeka as a Self-Publishing Tool

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Created on Sep 29, 2015

Emily Midkiff, CEHD graduate student, discusses her use of the Omeka platform as a self-publishing tool for a recent course project.

Could you please briefly describe yourself and your project?

I'm a PhD student in Curriculum and Instruction in the Literacy track and Children's Literature specialization. I'm studying children's literature, and am between my second and third year in the program.

The project was for a class called Intro to Special Collections, which is in partnership between Curriculum and Instruction department and the Kerlan Collection, where the Marguerite Henry professor here, Marek Oziewicz, works with Lisa Von Drasek, the curator, to co-create a class where grad students look through the materials and learn how to use them to create projects. There’s a whole bunch of different projects that you can create out of that class, [such as] papers, blogs, or lesson plans. Lisa asked if anyone wanted to make this digital exhibit, and that the Libraries would provide training. I thought that sounded like a very fun idea. It was made intentionally because this summer’s special meeting of ALA is about non-fiction picture books. The exhibit's featured book, Balloons over Broadway, is a non-fiction picture book, and we had almost all the materials for it in the Kerlan Collection. That's how the project got started, and it became a run-through of the process of making a picture book, using those materials.

What led to the decision to use the Omeka platform for this project? Could you talk about your decision-making process and some of the factors that went into it?

Omeka is what the Library uses, and Justin [Schell] taught me how to use it. I met with him, learned how to use the program, and got my passwords. This was right before it was upgraded, so I couldn’t use it for a month, but I was doing my research and still working with the materials [so I] didn’t need it yet.

Compared to a traditional exhibit, what are the benefits that a digital exhibit offers?

Part of the mission of children’s literature archives is that most of them were made for children. Most of the curators have this side mission of "Wouldn't it be nice if children were actually involved in this?" The weird paradox of children’s literature archives is that the materials, by virtue of being collected, become so precious that children aren't allowed to access them anymore because they’ve got sticky hands, can be clumsy, and will mess things up. So if you are making these things precious, then you can't let people in who might not be gentle with them, which then defeats some of the purpose. Making a digital exhibit means that children can access the materials—look at them digitally, see them in detail,and zoom in and flip through them. They have that access without having to go into a quiet room and not touch things, and it also means that children anywhere can look at it because it's open and available on the website. Any classroom can tap into it without even being in Minnesota or in the Twin Cities. That was a motivation for making it digital, and also so [the exhibit] can be shared it at ALA.

The way that Omeka is structured is that every single image has metadata files, so that anyone who is looking at it from a more scholarly approach can look into it in that depth.

[The exhibit] can also be scrolled through like a general gallery, so kids don't have to get into that depth—they can just look at the pictures. I also embedded a lot of discussion questions in the exhibit to directly engage, which comes out of museum literature about how to engage families and students in physical exhibits. They are not quiz-type questions that you could find a solid answer to in the page, they are more like "What do you think…" more ambiguous, and could be used if teachers wanted to discuss it in class.

What kinds of unexpected outcomes happened—either positive or negative—and how did you address them?

One of the interesting things that happened is the way that Omeka is set up—it's kind of half-intuitive and half-not. There are some options that make it really obvious as to how to do things: how to put text here, how bold text, things like that. Then there's other things that you can't do: you can't change the font type unless you know HTML. I do know how to use HTML, but I didn't realize for a while that I could go in and make those changes. There's also some glitches in the program—things like bullet points just don't work, no matter how you put them in there...it'll show up on the editing screen and it won't on the live screen even if I code it in HTML.

There was a program called Neatline that I was playing with. I painted a home page image in the style of the artist, so you could click on different areas and go to different pages of the website to try and make it more visual and vibrant. Unfortunately, that is not there right now. The way that Omeka has Neatline embedded, there wasn't enough room on the screen with the menu on the side, so it couldn’t actually fit and it wasn’t even on screen when the page would load—it was way off in space to the right and you had to drag it down. It was fun to play with, even though it didn’t end up being part of the finished project.

It's also very limited in the way that you can put things on the page. It was nice to have some structure so I could play with it, and other times I wished that I could make this slightly more flexible.

If you were to use this tool in a future project, would you make any changes in how you used it? Why or why not?

Justin showed me [a way to] upload all the metadata all at once. Not that I could do that from my account—he had to do that for me. [However] I didn't have that metadata reviewed by the curator before I did it, so I had to go back in and fix one piece of it in all the files anyway. That's definitely something I would think about in the future, before using a shortcut tool, make sure that it’s going to work and not having to go back in and redo everything.

There's also a lot of buttons for making things public or private that all need to be checked. I did not do this at first, so when we were first showing it just to each other, none of the pictures were showing up. There's one [button] you need to hit to make the exhibit public or make the text public, and the images—you have to go through and make them all public. Otherwise, I don’t think I would change that much. It's pretty straightforward in how it's meant to be used.

What recommendations do you have for other students, instructors, library professionals, etc. who are interested in creating a similar project with a tool such as this?

My recommendation would be to have lots of people look at [the project]. Every time somebody new looked at it they gave me a different thing to edit—[for example] the text was too small, the default text is really tiny.

Other recommendations include planning it out really well. Luckily I had extra time before Omeka was ready, so I spent a lot of time figuring out what was going on which pages so I didn’t have to go back and rescan things later because I realized that there was a gap in a page. I sketched out what was going to be on each page, but I couldn’t do too much because I didn’t know exactly where Omeka would allow me to put images on the pages.

I referred back to my notebooks (during the development process) because there were so many images to keep track of, and the names that they get when they are scanned in are just numbers. Knowing which one was which was tricky without having lots of references. I needed my paper to know what I had even intended the images for...because when you’re faced with 53 of them, I needed to know what I needed this image to do and where to put it.

It helps if you have some experience with making webpages to begin with, or a really good HTML tool. A lot of the basic stuff is in the intuitive [Microsoft] Word-like buttons, but anything else involving more specialization or customization you have to do through HTML.  If I wasn’t quite sure, I looked it up to figure out the rest of it since I already knew the general basics of the coding language. For anyone without those basics, an HTML tool would be essential for modifying the exhibit.