Digital History Adventure | Omeka

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 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.


2 thoughts on “Digital History Adventure | Omeka

  1. Sydney says:

    Jen, I appreciated your posting about your Omeka experience because it evidenced one of the core tenants of our work as historians–the importance of interpretation. You and I both utilized the site to create a digital collection, however, our thoughts on particular aspects of the site were contrasting at times. We had dissimilar experiences while interacting with the same platform–a phenomena that occurs daily and that impacts how historical moments and movements are constructed for public consumption.
    However, I digress. I enjoyed your inclusion of Kate Theimer’s quote because I think it appropriately sums up the ways in which the internet and all of its amenities have impacted the archival profession and how the public views/interacts with the archives.Yes, masses of digitized items do allow for greater public access but the process of digitizing said objects undoubtedly increases the workload of the proprietor ten-fold. That is one of my biggest complaints about digital history–it adds an extra step to the already time-consuming task of presenting sound historical content to the masses.
    Also, connecting some of Omeka’s features to Onion’s piece about attribution was a smart choice. I found myself stumped as I was attempting to fill out all of the fields for the objects in my collection. Most of the items that I chose were digitized with minimal to no source information so properly attributing proved tough. Rather than enter incorrect information I decided to leave various fields blank; and I’m assuming that Rebecca Onion would be pleased with my decision to do so.
    Last, I liked how you designated your Omeka site as a “digital historic collection” as opposed to a digital archive. Our small groupings of disparate historical objects are far from a traditional archive and I think labeling it as such would only further denigrate the little known (yet highly specific) definition of what an archive truly is.


    • giamje01 says:

      Sydney – thanks for your thoughtful response (and sorry that it took me so long to get back to you!) I appreciate hearing about your experiences with the site – I think I take for granted that I’ve worked with similar platforms in the past, and need to be mindful that these tools are not necessarily universally intuitive. That, I imagine, is a good lesson for institutions, too – in order to implement digital history in responsible ways, museums and historical sites need to invest not only in the idea but in their staff, and ensure that everyone has the training to do digital history in a way that is effective and efficient.


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