UC10153 -- Working with collections -- Week 6

Draft, 12 September 2016
This page should be in a useful state, but still needs work before it's finished.

Last week we looked at the broad characteristics of collection management systems. This week we’re goint to look in detail at Omeka, the collection management system you’ll be using to create your own collections.

If you haven’t already, have a look at this introductory video:

What is (and isn’t) Omeka?

Think back to the feature matrix we worked on last week. How does Omeka stack up:

Feature Omeka
Pricing Open source. Also available as cloud-hosted service with a variety of pricing options, including a basic free account.
Support for standards Descriptions based on Dublin Core, with the ability to add new types and fields as required.
Public web interface Yes, public web interface enabled by default. Administrators can choose which content is available to the public. Includes ability to create public exhibitions, combining collection items with narrative.
Collection management No, Omeka doesn’t capture collection management events such as loans or conservation.
Technical requirements Fairly easy to install from scratch, and ‘one click’ installers are available from a number of web hosts such as Reclaim Hosting. The cloud-hosted option, Omeka.net, requires no technical setup.
Ease of use Very easy for non-professional users to add and maintain and describe collections.

You’ll see that the key points of difference between Omeka and some of the other open source systems we examined is that it lacks comprehensive collection management features – the ability to capture events in the ongoing care and use of items. On the other hand, Omeka offers something all the other systems lack – the ability to easily create online exhibitions that present collection items within an interpretative context. With Omeka you can not only list collections, you can tell stories with them.

Tom Scheinfeldt has described Omeka as filling a gap between collection management systems, content management systems, and repository systems:

Omeka aims to fill this gap by providing a collections-focused web publishing platform that offers both rigorous adherence to standards and interoperability with the collections professional’s toolkit and the design flexibility, interpretive opportunities, and ease of use of popular web authoring tools.

I’ve chosen Omeka for your collections because of its ease-of-use. As you’ll see, it’s easy to create a nice looking online collection with good quality descriptive information.

More information:

Getting started


We’re going to be using the Omeka.net free account for your collections. Miriam Posner has written a great introduction to setting up your own site on Omeka.net, so we’re going to start with that.

Carefully follow Miriam’s instructions to:

  • Create your user account.

  • Create a new site.

  • Understand the difference between your admin site (the Omeka dashboard) and the public web interface.

  • Explore your site’s dashboard – change the appearance of your public site, and install some plugins.

  • Add a new item. (See below)

  • Create a collection.

Some things to note:

  • When you create your site you’ll be asked to provide a subdomain and a title. You can change the title at any time in the site’s settings. You can’t change the subdomain, but you can just delete your site from your account’s dashboard and create a new one. So don’t be too worried about what values you use at this stage – you’ll probably want to change them later on.

  • When it comes time to add an item, use my awesome Woomera postcard again! Here’s the front and back. You’ll need to save the images to your own computer (right click on the link, then choose Save link as…) before you can upload them to Omeka. Don’t worry about the ‘Item type’ at this point – we’ll look at that below.

Custom types and fields

As we’ve already noted, the main descriptive fields in Omeka are based on the Dublin Core standard. The meaning of the fields is not always obvious – ‘coverage’ for example – so you might want to familiarise yourself with the 15 standard DC metadata elements. The Omeka help site provides a handy introduction.

Using standards is great for consistency and interoperability, but it can sometimes be a bit restrictive. For example, there was no place to add a ‘sender’ and ‘receiver’ for my postcard. Similarly, there’s no ‘significance’ field in the standard set.

Fortunately, Omeka lets you expand the core metadata set by adding custom item types and fields.

  • Click on Item Types in the left-hand dashboard menu to open a list of existing item types. Perhaps there’s an existing item type you could use or modify?

  • Click on ‘Person’. Under ‘Elements’ you’ll see the custom fields associated with this item type – such as ‘Birth Date’ and ‘Birth Place’.

  • Go back to the list of item types.

  • Let’s add a ‘Postcard’ type. Click on the Add an Item Type button.

  • In the ‘Add Item Type’ form, give our new type the name ‘Postcard’.

  • Go down the page to ‘Elements’. Check ‘New’, and then click on Add Element.

  • Give the element the name ‘Sender’, and add an appropriate description – something like ‘Name of the person who sent the postcard’.

  • Repeat the step above to add a ‘Receiver’ element.

  • While we’re at it, lets add a ‘Dimensions’ element as well.

  • Click on the Add Item Type button to save our new type.

Once you’ve defined an item type you can apply it to your descriptions.

  • Go to the list of ‘Items’ in your site and click on the Woomera postcard you described earlier.

  • Click Edit to open up the description form.

  • Click on Item Type Metadata at the top of the form.

  • From the dropdown box select ‘Postcard’.

  • The ‘Sender’, ‘Receiver’, and ‘Dimensions’ fields will magically appear. Fill them in! (The postcard measures 87mm x 137mm, and was sent by my sister, Sally Sherratt.)

  • Click Save Changes.

  • Click View Public Page. Scroll down and you should see the postcard metadata.

There’s always a bit of a struggle between standards and flexibility. Obviously you want to use the standard elements wherever possible, but adding new elements enables us to capture structured data in ways that support better discovery and reuse. If we had a collection of postcards, for example, we might want to be easily able to generate lists of ‘senders’ and ‘receivers’. I’m expecting you to think carefully about this as you plan and create your own collections. Your proposal needs to include a section on metadata that should show that you’ve considered the descriptive requirements of your collection.

Some extra customisation

One thing you’ll notice when you look at the public view of the postcard is that there’s a lot of empty fields. Displaying them seems a bit pointless. Let’s fix that.

  • Click on Appearance in the top menu of the dashboard.

  • Click on the Settings tab.

  • Down the bottom of the form you’ll see a ‘Show Empty Element’ box – uncheck it.

  • You can also uncheck the Show Element Set Headings box to get rid of the ugly ‘Postcard Item Type Metadata’ heading on our postcard description.

  • Click Save Changes.

  • Go back to the public view of the postcard (refresh the page if necessary). That looks much better!

More than text

You may have noticed the little ‘Use HTML’ check boxes under the fields in the item edit screen. They allow you to enter formatted text, and more!

  • Go back to the Woomera postcard and open it for editing.

  • Click on the Item Type Metadata tab.

  • Go to the ‘Receiver’ field, and check the use HTML box.

You’ll see that an assortment of formatting widgets appear. They’re very similar to those provided in Moodle and elsewhere.

  • Select my name and click on the ‘Insert /edit link’ button.

  • Enter my website url – http://timsherratt.org – click Insert, and then Save Changes.

  • Try some of the other formatting tools.

Using the HTML option you can also embed resources from other websites, such as videos, sound clips, maps, or charts. Many sites such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and Google Maps provide you with the option to embed their resources in your own site. Let’s see how!

It would be good to add a bit more information about the Woomera Rocket Range to the description of my postcard. Searching on YouTube, I found this movie from 1962.

The movie is appearing in this page because I’ve dropped in a little bit of code to embed it. We can add the same bit of code to Omeka.

  • Go to the movie on YouTube.

  • Click on the Share link to open the sharing box.

  • Click on the Embed tab.

  • Copy the contents of the box.

The embed code will look something like this:

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/cwUl0nNdjkA" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

You can adjust the size and other options by click on the Show More link.

  • Now open up the postcard for editing again.

  • Go to the ‘Description’ field on the Dublin Core screen.

If you were adding a lot of videos, you might want to add a special field for them to your item type.

  • Check the ‘Use HTML’ box under the description field.

  • To add the embed code we have to edit the HTML of the field directly. Click on the HTML button to open the HTML source editor.

  • You might need to insert a blank line after any existing text. Then just paste in the code from YouTube.

  • Click Update to close the source editor. Don’t worry if all you see in the ‘Description’ field is a yellow box – the video will be inserted later.

  • Click Save Changes. The video should now be visible in the item description.

  • Click on View Public Page to see it in action.

It’s not just videos – you might like to create a Google Map that locates your item and embed that in your description. Or perhaps you might record, share, and embed oral history interviews? Note also that you can also embed things like this in Omeka exhibits (see below for creating exhibits).

An instant exhibition

In memoriam

What if you’ve already got your descriptions in a spreadsheet or database? Omeka provides you with a number of ways you can move data in and out of your site. One of the simplest is the ‘CSV Import’ plugin. We’re going to use it to create an instant exhibition.

  • First we need to install the plugin. Click Plugins in the top dashboard menu.

  • Find ‘CSV Import’ and click the Install button.

  • Download the file inmemorium.csv and save it somewhere you can find again. This is a spreadsheet from the State Library of WA, made available on the data sharing site data.gov.au. The notes describe it as a ‘Collection of “In Memoriam” cards with photographs of West Australians killed during the First World War, with brief biographical notes’. I’ve modified the file slightly to add direct links to images, and limited it to the first 50 rows (to speed up the import).

  • Once you’ve installed the plugin, you’ll see a CSV Import link appears in the left-hand dashboard menu. Click on it.

  • Go to ‘Upload CSV File’ and select the ‘inmemoriam.csv’ file you just downloaded.

  • Go to ‘Automap Column Names to Elements’ and uncheck the box.

  • Go to ‘Select Item Type’ and choose ‘Still Image’.

  • Go to ‘Make All Items Public?’ and check the box.

  • Leave the other fields as they are. Click on the Next button.

You’ll see a sample row from the CSV file that you can use to map the fields in the file to the elements in Omeka.

CSV Import mapping

  • Go to ‘Record number’ and select ‘Identifier’ from the ‘Map to Element’ box.

  • In the same way map ‘Title’ and to ‘Title’.

  • Map ‘Published’ to ‘Date’.

  • Map ‘Description’ to ‘Format’.

  • Map ‘Subject’ to ‘Description’.

  • Map ‘Subject - Person’ to ‘Subject’.

  • Map ‘Series’ to ‘Source’.

  • Now go to ‘Image’ and simply check the box that says ‘Files?’. Omeka will automatically download the images and add them to the records.

  • Click the Import CSV File button.

  • The status screen will appear, telling you your import has started. It might take a little while to grab all the images. Refresh the status page to see how it’s going, or click on Items to see what’s been added.

  • Have a look at your public site. If you’re not using the ‘Seasons’ theme, go into Appearance and select it – it displays images better than most of the others. Look again at your public site!

Featuring items

If you look at the public home page of site you’ll see there’s a box for a ‘Featured item’. You can choose whether or not this box appears by editing the settings of your theme. But let’s keep it and select some items to populate it.

  • Go to the Items list in your dashboard.

  • Check the box next to the items you want to feature.

  • Click the Edit button at the top of the list.

  • You can now edit all the selected items at once. Go to ‘Featured?’ and select ‘Featured’.

  • Click on Save Changes.

  • Now reload your site’s public home page. One of the items you edited will be chosen at random and featured.

Other useful plugins

It’s always useful to have an ‘About’ page on your site that explains in more detail what the site is for and how it was created. You can easily add one with the ‘Simple Pages’ plugin.

  • Click on Plugins in the top dashboard menu.

  • Find ‘Simple Pages’ and click Install.

  • A new Simple Pages button will appear in the left-hand menu. Click on it.

  • The plugin has automatically created an ‘About’ page for you. Click on the Edit to change the content.

  • Check the ‘Use HTML editor?’ box to add the formatting widgets to the ‘Text’ box.

  • Edit the contents of the ‘Text’ box to say whatever you want.

  • Click Save Changes.

  • Click View Public Page to see your brand new ‘About’ page. Note that an ‘About’ link has also been added to your site’s menu bar.

You can use the ‘Simple Pages’ plugin to add additional pages and arrange them in a hierarchy.

It’s no point creating a fantastic collection if people can’t find their way around it. There are various things you can do to enhance navigation and discovery.

First think about the structure of your site and your collection. It might help users if you create a series of thematic collections, rather than just one big catch-all grouping. (Go back to Miriam’s tutorial if you’ve forgotten how to create and use ‘Collections’ in Omeka.)

Have a look at this sample site – Artists, Patrons, and Japanese Art. Note that it divides its 21 items between five thematic collections. The Browse Collections page gives a good overview of the site and its contents.

You can also provide opportunities for exploring connections between items by making use of tags. Tags are assigned to individual items. Once again the Artists, Patrons, and Japanese Art site provides a good example of tags in action.

Note that I’ll be looking at the way you use collections and tags in assessing your projects. Start thinking about this at the proposal stage – do you need a controlled vocabulary for your tags? What types of metadata will best support discovery?

There are various other ways in which you can customise the navigation options in Omeka:

  • Under Appearance click on Navigation to change the links that appear in your main menu bar.

  • Under Appearance click on Themes and then Configure Theme to change how featured items and collections appear on your home page.

Going further

As we’ve noted, Omeka lets you create your own online exhibitions using your collection items. You don’t need to do this for your assessment, but if you’re interested have a look at Creating an Omeka Exhibit by Miriam Posner and Megan R. Brett.

Additional resources

  • There’s an extensive help section on Omeka.org, including a useful collection of screencasts covering the main administrative tasks. Note that some options might not be available in the free hosted Omeka.net account.

  • Omeka.net has its own help system, which covers everything you need to know to manage your account and build your site. There’s even a series of potential ‘Use Cases’ that explore how Omeka can be used for different purposes.