Featured image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society
Today I embarked on a new digital history adventure and created an online collection using the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Omeka.net exhibition tool. The topic of my site, entitled Visualizing Eugenics in America, was inspired by my research project this semester, the dark history of eugenics in twentieth-century America. The images I included come from the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, created by the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I chose images that illustrate the various aspects of the eugenics movement, including its flawed perceptions of heredity, positive eugenics (programs and policies designed to encourage the “fit” to reproduce), and negative eugenics (policies such as compulsory sterilization that targeted the “unfit”).
I found Omeka to be very intuitive – a simple and elegant platform for online exhibitions. It is a tool that I was previously unaware of, and it is encouraging to see that Omeka is available to people looking to create effective online collections. As archivist Kate Theimer noted in her presentation to the American Historical Association in 2014, the web has changed the ways archivists work. “Among the most significant of those ways,” she writes,
is in the increased workload to create descriptions and digital copies to post online, find ways to collect and preserve digital materials, and of course, actively connect with the public via the ever widening world of digital tools and social media.
Omeka does not necessarily reduce this workload, but it does offer a very usable format and consistent metadata categories. Because it includes fields such as rights and creator, it reminds users to avoid some of the pitfalls that Rebecca Onion bemoans in her article about @HistoryInPics, namely failure to provide attribution information. One of my concerns about the platform is consistency – apart from its tags, there is no controlled vocabulary that would ensure that someone uploading items would use the same words to describe each item (type and subject, for instance). A controlled vocabulary would mean that multiple people could work on the site without worrying about consistency. In any case, this is a minor concern about a platform that is effective and easy to use.
Ultimately, Visualizing Eugenics is not an archive in the traditional sense. It is a curated selection of images, and the images and documents I chose were compiled in a “digital archive” that includes items from a variety of repositories and parent organizations. I think the term “digital historic representations,” or a “digital historic collection” would be useful to describe what I’ve done. Language aside, it was a valuable experience. I look forward to finding ways to put Omeka to use in the future as I continue my career as a public and digital historian.