So, you’ve populated your archive with a few “items”, and Omeka is prompting you to organize these items into something called “collections” and “exhibits”.  What are these and how can you best take advantage of them to showcase your material?  If you just plop items up there, they won’t make a huge amount of sense to your users.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of logging on to a website that looks like it should be useful and interesting, but it’s hard to get a sense of just what is on there.

You need some organization to guide your readers.  In the old days this might have come in terms of a table of contents, chapters and an index if you were organizing content for a book. Or it might have meant putting paintings in different rooms if you were organizing an exhibit for a museum, or even putting manuscripts under different glass cases to showcase your library’s special collections.

Things are a little different online, but Omeka still uses a familiar metaphor, that of the museum, to organize the “items” that you put up. Each “item” is part of one and only one “collection” and can additionally be displayed in any number of “exhibits”.  The ability to organize “items” into “collections” and “exhibits” is a wonderful thing about Omeka.  It allows us to shape and organize our content in much more sophisticated ways than a CMS like WordPress, which pretty much just has “items” aka “blog posts”, running in the order that they are posted. There are many more options in Omeka.

For some types of sites, the museum metaphor might already be the perfect metaphor to organize your material.  For example, at some point in the future, I would love to do an online edition of the collected letters of Dinah Mulock Craik.  I would use “collections” to mirror the physical collections that her actual letters are held in around the world, for example, “The Mulock Family Papers at UCLA” or “The Craik Collection, at the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin”.  I would then use “exhibits” to curate my own displays of letters–for example, letters from Dinah to her brother Benjamin Mulock, which are held in many different physical collections.  I could even have a lot of fun with it, curating perhaps an exhibit of letters from 1869, the year she built a house, lost her father, and adopted a daughter.  A really great part of a digital project is this kind of experimentation.

For other types of sites, the metaphor of “collections” and “exhibits” won’t make a huge amount of sense in terms of organizing your items.  This was the case with Nineteenth-Century Disability:  A Digital Reader, which is reader of primary sources in nineteenth-century disability from many different sources, and does not have a physical analogue the same way that say, the collection of glass flowers at the Harvard Natural History Museum does.  I needed to get creative in my organization and come up with a new metaphor.

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

The good news is that you can repurpose “collections” and “exhibits” to organize your material in whatever way you want.  I was really stuck on this, so I studies The Children in Youth and History site, a featured Omeka site coming out of George Mason.  If you look, you’ll see they changed “Collections” to “Primary Sources” which are then organized geographically under collections such as “North America” and “Africa”.  Their “exhibits” have become “Case Studies” and “Teaching Modules”.

Since Children and Youth in History is also a thematic reader of primary sources, I decided to do something close to this for Nineteenth-Century Disability.  Using the “Custom Header Navigation” under “Configure Themes” on my site’s dashboard, I renamed “Collections” as “Topics” and I re-named “exhibits” as “Lesson Plans”.

Using the Custom Header Navigation in Omeka to rename "exhibits" and "collections".  This image reflects the current set up of the site.
Using the Custom Header Navigation in Omeka to rename “exhibits” and “collections”. This image reflects the current set up of the site.

Next came the question of how to subdivide these themes.  The geographical model used by Children and Youth in History did not translate to Nineteenth-Century Disability, which was mainly primary sources coming out of London. Nor did I want to use topics like “blindness” or “deafness” under “Themes”, which would tend to point toward the medical model of disability as a personal affliction, rather than pointing toward the broader social construction of disability. To put it simply, I didn’t want the organization of my site to reduce people to a disability.  Rather, I wanted to emphasize disability as part of a larger social system.  To that end, the categories that I chose were “People,” “Places,” “Concepts,” and “Culture.”

If you check back on the site, you’ll see that after a few months of this organization I’ve shifted it yet again to reflect the direction the reader is going in.  That’s both part of the fun and the frustration of doing a digital project–you can endlessly change your organization if things start moving in a different direction…

Stay tuned for a post in the next couple of weeks about how I further customized Nineteenth-Century Disability:  A Digital Reader.



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