Omeka Part 4: Playing with PHP

Screenshot of Nineteenth-Century Disability:  A Digital Reader
Screenshot of Nineteenth-Century Disability: A Digital Reader

In this post, I’d like to talk about the part of getting started with Omeka that terrified me the most:  altering the code behind the scenes.  A quick refresher:  Omeka is a content management system aimed at academics, museum professionals and archivists.  I’ve blogged about getting started with Omeka here, here, and here.

In my last post, I talked about customizing the “exhibits” and “collections” in Omeka to fit your theme.  There will probably come a point, though, where you’ll want to customize Omeka even further than the dashboard will allow you to.  That is the point where you’ll need to start playing with the code.

Omeka uses PHP, a popular server-side scripting language that is also used for WordPress.  The good news is that you really don’t need to know a lot about PHP to start tweaking your site.  In fact, I will confess that I still don’t know PHP, but that has not hindered me from altering it.  I’m learning as I go.

Most of the changes that I wanted to make to Nineteenth-Century Disability:  A Digital Reader, were to the theme and public display.  I wanted to rename and re-order the Dublin Core fields to things that would be more intuitive to my audience (for example, to change “Description” to “Introduction”), and wrap a light blue box around the primary source text to make it stand out.

The first thing I needed to do was get a text editor that would download files from my server and allow me to edit and reload them.  I chose TextWrangler, which has been very easy to use.

The next thing I needed to do was to figure out how to make the alterations to the PHP files.  That, I had no idea how to do.  I didn’t even know which file to start with.  That’s where the lovely people at Omeka forums come in.  Jeremy Boggs and Patrick Murray-John were (and still are) amazingly helpful and patient with my queries.  You can read here how Jeremy Boggs basically wrote my first alterations for me.

Over the last few months, with help from the forums I have also altered my footer and other parts of the display. Today, I actually managed to add Google Analytics to track my site statistics without posting a query in the forum (though we’ll see if it actually works tomorrow.)  The look and feel of my site is still quite close to the original Berlin theme, but without being a web designer, I was able to customize it very nicely indeed.

One thing that I found extremely reassuring was that pretty much all the changes an individual might make to Omeka reside in your theme. (So make sure you’re pretty settled on a theme before you start fine-tuning!)  Omeka checks your theme for files and then goes to the original installation if there are no changes there.  This essentially means you can’t mess up too badly since you are not actually changing anything in the core of Omeka–the worst case scenario would be that you would have to reload your theme.  And that would be okay!

I’m not going to lie.  I crashed my whole site at least twice when I first started altering the PHP.  There may have been tears on one occasion.  But there was never anything I couldn’t fix in an hour.  My worst case scenario was throwing out the file that made the site crash and starting over.  I never even had to reinstall the theme.

Last week, I made my footer disappear while adding a contact form.  It was a missing comma.


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