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.


  1. Nicole Negron says:

    I appreciated that she touched on strategies for reaching less tech-inclined audiences. This is one of the issues at my museum. Many of our visitors (and volunteers) just do not like or want to use technology. One thing we learned this semester is reaching audiences where they are at. I also learned in another class about the importance of fostering relationships when you are trying to reach a group that you are not a member of.
    I appreciated that she pointed out drawbacks, providing a realistic and whole picture of what an endeavor like your project could really look like with certain tech. The Omeka program seems to be very versatile and customizable. Are you definitely using this program for your project?

  2. Nicole Negron says:

    I also checked out the Historia Abierta…as soon as the web page opened, my browser asked if I would like the page translated.

  3. Robyn Filonczuk says:

    I appreciated that you and Sheila both brought up other companies and software which helps Omeka operate smoothly such as Reclaim Hosting and reCAPTCHA. As non-tech professionals who are trying to help their museums develop online exhibitions and share their collections online, it’s nice to hear the names of other companies they’ve worked with or would recommend when a museum has a lower budget. I also appreciated hearing the question you asked regarding failures. We all have successes and failures, but rarely do we volunteer that information, so I appreciated you asking and Sheila giving an honest answer without disrespecting who the discrepancy was with. Omeka surely sounds like a successful open source software with over 50 languages and dialects to choose your base language in, and I look forward to exploring it further!

  4. Asia Folk says:

    Excellent interview. I love how Ms. Brennan mentioned that reaching a larger audience does not necessarily mean that it has to be through digital or on line collections. As museum audiences are diverse in age and demographic, different people require different means of interaction and communication. I believe that mailed newsletters, and phone calls are perfect for older users. I know that at Avery Research Center of African American History Culture, where I interviewed Ms. Aaisha Haykal, perhaps their largest outreach program is the Avery Messenger )annual newsletter) delivered by postal mail to members or stakeholders of the museum. The pamphlet encompasses a wide range of announcements, future events and information about new acquirements. However, if Avery were to participate in a podcast about the closing of the institution and what exactly is being done, they could also reach those younger audiences.

  5. wendytribaldos says:

    Hi Nicole, thanks for your question. I actually pitched my MuCPa project to the web developers for the Museum last week and I believe they are using some of my design, which of course has me ecstatic. They are not very comfortable using Omeka probably because they are not familiar with the software. They asked me if we could use WordPress to develop the site; my answer was that if we could provide the same functionality than Omeka and give my users what they requested, I would give it a go.

    1. Nicole Negron says:

      Interesting! I hope that you can get the same functionality using WordPress because your pitch was awesome and the project feels very important. (I am not a fan of WordPress personally.)

  6. Mallory Spann says:

    Great job Wendy. I really appreciated Ms. Brennan’s views regarding how to tag their own items to allow people to show their own perspective and eliminate opinion. This is a wonderful solution to the problem. As you have mentioned that your project can lead to debate, this is a great way to allow people to tell their story in their own way and prevent the project from becoming one large argument.

    1. Kirsten Kempf says:

      Mallory, I also thought the tagged posts was a great suggestion to overcome this potential issue. The tags then work almost as automated moderation, helping to further the stories along and not get lost in debate.

  7. Kirsten Kempf says:

    Great interview, Wendy. Sheila’s answers throughout the interview were in-depth and contained a lot of great information. Your conversation about comments and SPAM/ bots was interesting as that’s not something I had considered for my project this semester. I appreciated Sheila’s response that you don’t have to make all comments public but those that are derogatory shouldn’t be deleted in order to track them. Her response reinforced the museum’s position as the moderator on the site and its responsibility to the mission of the project, which I found to be an effective answer.

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