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Growing Open Source Communities: Omeka, End Users, Designers and Developers

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The following is a guest post from Sharon M. Leon, Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor at George Mason University.

Historians are not the most likely candidates to design and develop an open source web publishing platform. But, as historians working at in the common spaces of libraries, museums and archives, we at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media have done just that with Omeka. The impetus for this work grew out of our own experiences, but the results have proven useful to a much larger community. In the process of this learning experience, we have developed a range of strategies for sustaining open source tools and the community of end users, designers and developers who have coalesced around them may prove useful to future projects.

Sharon M. Leon
Sharon M. Leon

Building the collecting portal and database for the September 11th Digital Archive was our first real glimpse of the kind of platform would be necessary to collect, preserve and share cultural heritage. As we continued to pursue in collecting born-digital materials and creating digital exhibits, we found ourselves building the similar site infrastructure over and over again. Eventually it became clear that we needed a more efficient way to clearly display collections and metadata and to assemble those items into exhibits with narrative interpretation.

Similarly, through our collaborations with libraries, museums and archives in the early years of the web, we realized that creating and maintaining a vibrant online presence was proving too difficult for many organizations. Even the most high profile institutions found their digital holdings trapped in expensive collections management systems that lacked sophisticated web publishing capacities. These experiences convinced us that it was simply too hard for institutions with small technical staffs and tight budgets to build websites that showcased their collections and the knowledge of their content experts.

Existing open source content management systems provided excellent clues as to what would be possible. WordPress was wonderful in its ease of use and theming, but it was not good for collections or including standardized metadata. Drupal was amazingly flexible but had a learning and implementation curve that was simply too high for most digital novices. With Omeka, we aimed for the sweet spot of ease of use and rigorous data model and interoperability.

Since Omeka launched in February 2008, our users have downloaded the software tens of thousands of times and built thousands of sites (visit our list of sites or search for “Powered by Omeka”). The software offers a simple administrative interface for creating online collections and exhibits and easy design options through interchangeable themes. Though ease of use is a primary goal for the project, we are committed also to the principles of open content and interoperability. Thus, we have integrated those values into the software with standardized Dublin Core Metadata and a full range of output feed possibilities (XML, JSON, OAI, RSS, ATOM). These decisions support and sustain a larger mission of cultural heritage access and preservation.

Example of an Omeka-powered website
Example of an Omeka-powered website

This combination of ease use, openness and interoperability means that the Omeka team serves a very diverse audience of libraries, museums, archives, scholars, teachers and general enthusiasts. Each of these groups has a wide range of both digital skills and needs. Building and sustaining a community of endusers, designers and developers factors into every decision we make about how to support, extend and market the software. We aim for clarity in description and documentation, and we firmly believe that we need to deliver this support in a variety of forms so that different users can locate the help that is most suited to their skills and needs. Simultaneously, we have invited the user community to participate in the process of supporting and extending the software through the documentation wiki, the user discussion forums, the developers discussion list.

On our documentation wiki we offer end users, not only screencasts and step-by-step instructions on how to work with the elements of the administrative interface, but also materials on site planning. These tips on site planning and project case studies are essential for new users who might be unfamiliar with the importance of metadata schemas or the principles of good information architecture. One of our goals with Omeka is to empower new individuals and organizations to publish their content, and the first step in that venture is helping those users know where to begin with their collections. Beyond these efforts at documentation, we offer end users access to a vibrant and responsive set of online forums where our team and other users can offer answers to their questions and concerns.

Designers and developers, on the other hand, need different kinds of support. Again, our users run the gamut of technical expertise from experienced programmers to those just picking up enough PHP to customize their sites. To serve this range of needs, we offer tips for getting started working with the Omeka code, best practices for writing themes and plugins, API and function reference pages. Most importantly, we have just launched a set of recipes that provide designers and developers with clear answers on how to customized and extend Omeka. These recipes reflect the experiences of the community of users and are growing out of their own work with the software. Additionally, Omeka’s community of designers and developers sustains an active conversation through a Google Group that deals with more technical matters than those that appear in the forum post.

Browsing the long list of websites built with Omeka or the newly revamped Add-ons directory for Omeka themes and plugins suggests the ways that our strategies for support and sustaining our communities are working. Everyday new websites and projects powered by Omeka are launching. Designers and developers are extending Omeka into the realms of geospatial scholarship (see Neatline from the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia), and the mobile web (see Cleveland Historical from the Center for Public History and Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University). We are constantly impressed and inspired by the ways the work produced through the Omeka community. And we hope that our strategies for supporting and sustaining that community offer lessons and inspiration for new open source projects as they commit to serving their users and the larger goals of open access to cultural heritage materials.

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