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Omeka’s Recipes for an Open Source Community

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The Omeka project team is coming up with some good solutions for building an open source community.  Omeka, an open source web publishing platform for cultural heritage collections, was developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  (An overview of Omeka is given in a previous blog post by project director Sharon M. Leon, Director of Public Projects at CHNM.)

The Omeka +Neatline project is a collaborative endeavor involving CHNM and the University of Virginia, and builds on the uses of the Omeka software platform for digital collections.  Neatline, developed at the Scholar’s Lab at UVA , is a toolset added on to Omeka’s open source platform, and is used to enable the creation of timelines and maps.   (Here’s a project blog post, and a link to Omeka plug-ins ).

Last month, the Omeka+Neatline project team gave a presentation and led a discussion here at the Library of Congress, to address challenges and gather feedback in their quest to build a community for this open source software.  In addition to Sharon, the other presenters were Sheila Brennan and Patrick Murray-John, both of CHNM, and Jeremy Boggs from the UVA Scholar’s Lab.

The team noted that one of the biggest challenges was in addressing the needs of diverse audiences that have varying levels of expertise and resources, so along those lines, there are various “help” options available;  the documentation wiki for end users and  developers, and the forums, which feed into “recipes” – short examples of real world problems and solutions.  There is also a very active Google group for developers.  Sharon Leon noted “the wide variety of support venues and the improvements that we’ve made to the documentation wiki really have been targeted at meeting those users where they are with the software.”

Jane Mandelbaum, an IT Project Manager at the Library of Congress, sums up this  project overall as “ the development of strategies for improving modularity, flexibility, reusability, and scalability of open source software tools and services and the adoption by broad-based user communities.”  The long term view is that this work will further the sharing of knowledge among the larger communities involved in sustainability of digital content over time.

The team also mentioned that they are seeing integration of Omeka with other tools, such as Viewshare, and that libraries are some of the biggest users of the platform. The discussion also touched on the different paths that can lead to working in an open source software community.  For example, Patrick Murray-John of CHNM described his path from obtaining a PhD in Anglo-Saxon literature to being an academic in the digital community.

Documentation was an emerging theme in the discussion that day.  Trevor Owens, Digital Archivist at the Library of Congress, notes the importance of Omeka’s documentation process, saying “The level at which the project is carefully tailoring documentation to fit the needs of different audiences is a useful model for anyone working on open source projects in the library, archives, or museum space.”

Mandelbaum remarked that “there was a lot of interest in the documentation that the Omeka+Neatline team has developed and their user-focused approach to building a community around the software.  This led to some lively discussion about how to involve both developers and users in ways in which they can feel comfortable experimenting with the software.  We discussed the various options that are made available — such as the hosted service.”

Owens emphasized the importance of a specific kind of documentation from Omeka, the developer “recipes”, extracted from discussions in the forums.   He says “I was impressed by the way they are thinking about developer outreach as a way to expand the knowledge base about the software, and also create direct opportunities for interested developers to make contributions and develop a deeper understanding of the software.”


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