Oct 29

Omeka: The New Primary Source Anthology?


Since I’ve begun teaching, I’ve become mildly obsessed with buying anthologies of primary sources. Until I had to get up in front of a classroom, I didn’t realize how difficult it was to select and make available primary sources to teach students with. A good anthology of sources has done more to advance the world’s knowledge than many a monograph.

But print anthologies have their flaws. First, no anthology has all the sources you need; you’ve got to pick and choose from them all. Second, they are expensive—no small issue for students. Third, many of them are out of print. Of course, there are some great anthologies of primary sources on the web: for example, History Matters and Do History. And of course, more and more there are large archives of primary sources online, like American Memory. But it seems to me that a useful tool for teachers would be a way of building your own anthology of sources for teaching.

Enter Omeka.

If you’re not familiar with it, “Omeka is a next generation web publishing platform for collections-based research of all kinds, one that bridges the scholarly, library, and museum worlds through a set of commonly recognized standards. In doing so, Omeka puts serious web publishing within reach of all scholars and cultural heritage professionals.” The self-hosted version of Omeka is easy enough to use, if you have some basic skills at installing and running web apps. But even better, the recently announced Omeka.net offers a hosted service that will make the software even easier to use.

In this session, I’d like to talk about the possibilities of using Omeka to create an anthology of primary sources for teaching. Specifically, these are the topics we might discuss:

  • What would an Omeka anthology of sources look like? How would it be organized?
  • What might be the best practices in creating an Omeka anthology?
  • What are the copyright issues involved in creating an anthology? Does it make a difference if the anthology is publicly available, or available only to students in a given class?
  • Can teachers roll their own Omeka anthologies, especially with Omeka.net, or should educational technologists get involved?
  • What can Omeka offer that printed and bound anthologies cannot? I’m thinking here of capabilities like geo-tagging primary sources, as well as including media like audio, photos, and video that print cannot.

Most of all, let’s get our hands dirty and actually start using Omeka! I’ll have a self-hosted Omeka installation to use as a sandbox, and it’s easy to sign up for an Omeka.net account. In the words of Dave Lester, we need “more hack, less yack.”

If you’re interested in this session and want to think about it in advance, you might take a look at some of the fine Omeka sites that are already on the web. Two that I think are particularly good models of sites that are useful for teaching are Making the History of 1989 and The Object of History. You can see other examples at the Omeka showcase and at this wiki list of Omeka sites.

One last thing: if we have time, we might also discuss how to use Omeka as a repository of sources for research. Looking towards my future dissertation, I’ve set up an Omeka installation to collect the conversion narratives that I plan to study. (My Omeka archive is almost completely empty now, but here is the shell.) Can we use Omeka to promote transparency in research? If being an active researcher makes for better teaching—one of the assumptions of our research universities—then can making our sources available in Omeka make us better teachers?


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  1. Erin

    Sounds like a very useful/cool resource. I’d be interested in hearing more about it and your experience with using it!

  2. Kim Petit

    I know vaguely Omeka as a tool for museum. I like the idea of using it as a personal research tool, and much more as a tool for teaching in a classroom.

    I teach graduate high school teachers who want to know more about digital tools and resources. I would like to know if Omeka can be a solution for them if they want to show their own collection of primary sources. If Omeka is easy to use for people with little knowledge in computing I might add it to my syllabus and propose it to other colleagues.

  3. Sam

    One thing I hear continually from my colleagues and friends who teach history courses, specifically survey/Gen. Ed.-style courses, is the serious lack of student engagement. The relevance of history isn’t necessarily obvious to a chemistry or physical therapy major, especially the first/second-year undergraduates who take these courses.

    I could see Omeka being used to create a a series of modestly-sized, high-quality collections of primary sources based around undergraduate majors. The idea would be show students who have a primary interest in other academic areas the relevance of history to their fields of interest (founding principles, important developments, key figures, etc.).

    By having all these sources in one place and housed in Omeka, one can avoid the pitfalls of the colossal lists of links which are often out-of-date or simply overwhelming to beginning undergrads. It could hopefully serve as a tool to give faculty a better way to connect history and the practice of history to students who often can’t or won’t see why they should care.

  4. briandistelberg.com

    This would be really interesting, Lincoln. I’ve TA’ed for a course in African American history since Emancipation several times, and there’s obviously an enormous amount of fascinating and useful visual and audio material out there online that complements and illuminates the book of primary sources readings assigned to the students. I found myself doing a lot of e-mailing out of links and using classroom time to play videos. I’d love to be able, in a course like this, to have a reader that, by default, incorporates text, video, and audio into each week’s assignment.

  5. clarissaceglio.wordpress.com

    I’m extremely interested in using Omeka to create primary source archives in relation to my own research and teaching. So, I’m glad you’ve raised this topic. Like you, I’m thinking of this in relation to my dissertation (which looks at the wartime work of museums) as well future projects. My research on museum activities during past wars takes me to the archives, but my efforts to study museum engagements with the current war are largely dependent upon Internet sources, such as the exhibition pages on museum Web sites, press releases issued as PDFs, reviews from online media, etc., supplemented by my own fieldwork. The latter includes visiting exhibits, taking photographs, recording interviews, collecting printed matter, and sketching exhibition floor plans. As you can imagine, it would be great to have all this stuff in one convenient, accessible location vs. dislocated in a series of digital spaces and physical filing cabinets. I’ll have more to say about this on my session proposal, which piggy-backs on yours.

    I’ve been playing around on a limited basis (limited because I know zero about altering code) with Omeka as a tool to perform the basic data archiving. What I really envision, however, is something that would also allow collaborative interactions. I’ve found Omeka, which I first used on a version installed at school, to be very easy and intuitive to use. I could only get part way toward my goals, however, using the software as is. Because the university install was a shared resource I wasn’t allowed to make changes (i.e., get things to look and act like the great example sites to which you linked), so I switched to an Omeka.net site. My site is just bare bones at the moment but I find I’m able to do less than I remember being able to do with the university-hosted one. So, I’m thinking about a self-hosted site.

    One important issue (of the many) that you raised is that of copyright not only for an anthology but also for a shared research database. How do we collect, store and share the sorts of born-digital materials that I mentioned above when we’re not the creators? Where is the line between fair use and infringement?

  6. Caro Pinto

    I’ll be in BootCamp sessions this weekend, but I am really interested in Omeka and this session. I am really interested in finding new ways of engaging with Omeka, especially for use in undergraduate classes so students can enjoy the opportunity to curate their own exhibits.

  7. Libby

    I’m interested in this session too. I’ve long wanted to have separate websites [or OMEKA sites in this case] for each class I teach with compilations of various primary sources. In some sense, this is what I do with blackboard [the newer versions make it easier to compile visual, audio, text], but I’d like something more attractive, more curator friendly, and also a model students could do themselves. [I can see assigning students to compile sources around a particular topic for their own final project]. Can someone tell me if one can use OMEKA on a macbook? I looked into it a few months ago, and it didn’t seem quite possible then. Have things changed?

  1. THATCamp New England » Blog Archive

    […] Write a session proposal. What we’ll talk about at THATCamp depends on what you propose. Writing out your session proposals in advance is crucial, because we’ll vote on which sessions to hold in first hour of THATCamp on Saturday. So let’s hear your ideas! If you need a model, see these early proposals by Konrad, Boone, Brian, and Lincoln. […]

  2. THATCamp New England » Blog Archive

    […] us to explore the potential use of Omeka as a primary source repository that can function as a digitally-enabled anthology for teaching and other uses. Karrie encourages us to talk about the problems that scholars, […]

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