Sheila A. Brennan – Digital Public Historian and Program Officer

Omeka is an open source content management system for sharing digital collections and online exhibits developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  During her tenure (2005-2018), Sheila Brennan and her team helped people become active participants in defining and shaping their own stories, to create more inclusive narratives and diversify the historical record.

Sheila spoke to me about the need to use multiple strategies to reach users that are not comfortable with technology or cannot be reached via digital means, including analog media, phone calls, mail-in postcards, etc.  For projects that skew towards older individuals, she suggests using a simple Google form to provide a point of entry for future face-to-face interviews.  She also stressed that relationships are vital for the success of any oral archive, especially if you are not a member of the target community.

Sheila stated that it is easy and inexpensive to create a collecting site that both works well and is easily accessible using mobile devices.   She did point out several drawbacks, such as limitations on downloadable material because of restricted bandwidths and/or lack of storage on some mobile devices.

When open folksonomies are frowned upon, Sheila suggested letting individuals create tags for their own content so they control the way their personal stories are categorized.  She pointed out that Omeka does not support face tagging like Facebook, nor does it have a fundraising plugin.  However, it is possible to add e-commerce capabilities like the site Red Hook Water Stories included:  it features a  “donate” button that links out to a fundraising website.

Regarding complex metadata standards, Sheila stated that administrators can decide which fields are shown to users while still allowing for interoperability. Contributors can also choose to either open up their content or just add it to the public record accessible with special permissions.  All content is also previously mediated, which helps filter spam. This is an important consideration, as staff needs to be engaged after the site goes “live”.

Sheila wishes there was better automatic crawling software to find web content.  She pointed out there are some web scraping tools, and the Python programming language can also do the deed but this requires IT support.   This is something that open coders could work to develop in the near future.

Omeka supports more than 50 languages and dialects.  Sheila shared Historia Abierta as an example of a site developed in Spanish.  If an English-speaker wishes to browse or contribute, she/he can use Google Translate or a similar tool.

Finally, I asked Sheila about the advantages and disadvantages of using a commercial oral archive vis a vis an open source one.  She listed among the pluses that their user interface can be friendlier and nicer looking.  Among the drawbacks, it is not free, there is little control over data, it has fewer options and has the danger of folding as a business venture.

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