Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Omeka and Its Peers

| 10 Comments

As an open source, not-for-profit, warm-and-fuzzy, community service oriented project, we don’t normally like to talk about market rivals or competitive products when we talk about Omeka. Nevertheless, we are often asked to compare Omeka with other products. "Who’s Omeka’s competition?" is a fairly frequent question. Like many FAQs, there is an easy answer and a more complicated one.

The easy answer is there is no competition. ;-) Omeka’s mix of ease of use, focus on presentation and narrative exhibition, adherence to standards, accommodation for library, museum, and academic users, open source license, open code flexibility, and low ($0) price tag really make it one of a kind. If you are a librarian, archivist, museum professional, or scholar who wants a free, open, relatively simple platform for building a compelling online exhibition, there really isn’t any alternative.

digital_amherst

[Figure 1. Digital Amherst, an award-winning Omeka powered project of the Jones Library in Amherst, MA.]

The more complicated answer is that there are lots of products on the market that do one or some of the things Omeka does. The emergence of the web has brought scholars and librarians, archivists, and museum professionals into increasingly closer contact and conversation as humanists are required to think differently and more deeply about the nature of information and librarians are required to play an ever more public role online. Yet these groups’ respective tool sets have remained largely separate. Library and archives professionals operate in a world of institutional repositories (Fedora, DSpace), integrated library systems (Evergreen, Ex Libris), and digital collections systems (CONTENTdm, Greenstone). Museum professionals operate in a world of collections management systems (TMS, KE Emu, PastPerfect) and online exhibition packages (Pachyderm, eMuseum). The humanist or interpretive professional’s online tool set is usually based around an off-the-rack web content management system such as WordPress (for blogs), MediaWiki (for wikis), or Drupal (for community sites). Alas, even today too much of this front facing work is still being done in Microsoft Publisher.

The collections professional’s tools are excellent for preserving digital collections, maintaining standardized metadata, and providing discovery services. They are less effective when it comes to exhibiting collections or providing the rich visual and interpretive context today’s web users expect. They are also often difficult to deploy and expensive to maintain. The blogs, wikis, and off-the-rack content management systems of the humanist (and, indeed, of the public programs staff within collecting institutions, especially museums) are the opposite: bad at handling collections and standardized metadata, good at building engaging experiences, and relatively simple and inexpensive to deploy and maintain.

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.

omeka_tech_ecosystem

[Figure 2. Omeka Technology Ecosystem]

By combining these functions, Omeka helps advance collaboration of many sorts: between collections professionals and interpretive professionals, between collecting institutions and scholars, between a "back of the house" and "front of the house" staff, and so on.

omeka_user_ecosystem

[Figure 3. Omeka User Ecosystem]

In doing so, Omeka also helps advance the convergence and communication between librarians, archivists, museum professionals, and scholars that the digital age has sparked, allowing LAM professionals to participate more fully in the scholarship of the humanities and humanists to bring sophisticated information management techniques to their scholarship.

Which brings us back to the short answer. There really is no competition.

10 Comments

  1. Hello,

    Very interesting post! Really helpful. I was wondering: why did you not include Collective Access (http://www.collectiveaccess.org/) in this overview? I have been trying to find a comparison between Omeka and Collective Access for a while now, since they seem to similar, but so far no luck.

    Cheers,

    Lotte Belice

  2. @Lotte– Great question. Many thanks for raising it.

    Essentially, I’d put Collective Access in the category of museum collections management systems along with TMS and KE Emu. However, since Collective Access is web based, you’re right that it has some native strengths in online presentation of collections that others in the category do not, and in that regard, some overlap with Omeka.

    That said, like many of the other products mentioned in the post, I see Collective Access and Omeka as complements rather than competitors. One way to think about it is that Collective Access is an enterprise oriented solution whereas Omeka is a project oriented solution—at least if we’re talking about larger museums. Though Omeka can be used for managing collections—indeed, it may be all a smaller museum needs—it does not offer the full range of collections management features of something like Collective Access. For example, Omeka does not offer the robust conservation tracking or loan management features (at least not out of the box) of a full fledged collections management system. On the other hand, though Collective Access allows for attractive web-based collections access, it does not have the easy design flexibility of Omeka’s theming system, its WordPress-style APIs, or its robust ecosystem of Web 2.0 and other plugins for building engaging visitor experiences and narrative exhibits at low cost and in short order.

    Choosing Collective Access is a major institutional and curatorial commitment. Choosing Omeka is less momentous. You have a set of materials (for example, the contents of a temporary exhibition) that you want to wrap with curatorial expertise, publish quickly, inexpensively, and attractively online, and allow visitors to interact with …. Omeka is your platform. And there is no reason you can’t choose both: Collective Access for enterprise-level collections management and discovery and Omeka for particular projects, sub-collections, or exhibits that need a special design and interpretive touch.

    Tom

  3. Tom, I would agree with you. There is no tool like Omeka. I came to this conclusion after trying to match my stakeholders’ requirements with various backend systems.

    That being said, I would like to make a few comments after putting my hands underneath the Omeka hood, so to speak. Omeka is a young system so it’s evolving into a very useful tool.

    I can see that using Omeka “out of the box” can be fairly easy. My stakeholders’ requirements are dictating that I do more than the basic which makes my learning curve just a bit steeper. A better manual would go a long way to making entry into Omeka easier for anyone. Can you tell I used to write technical manuals? ;-)

    All of which connects to my second comment: Omeka’s base seems to be rooted in collections management through Dublin Core. While I understand why, most web developers and non-techies trying to create a site with Omeka aren’t really familiar nor need the detail it provides. More importantly, the documentation has been written by those familiar with that system. So it makes the manual more difficult to understand from what might be your typical enduser. For example, if you want a curator to be able to use Omeka to create online exhibitions the documentation will have to be written to help that type of user.

    I’d like to see a manual written very simply, something a web designer and curator might more easily understand –and something less rooted to a collections management pov.

    That being said, once I get over the hump of translation, so to speak, I’m looking forward to keeping Omeka in my back pocket of useful applications.

  4. @Jeff– Thanks for the comment. Fair point. I would absolutely agree that we need not only better documentation, but something that looks more like a “users manual.”

    The funny thing is I hear the opposite criticism from collections types: that Omeka is too rooted in a web developers pov. That suggests two things: 1) we need to do a better job of explaining to each group the features intended for the other, and 2) if our aim is to build a tool that splits the difference between the two cultures, then we’re probably on the right track. Thanks again.

  5. Can Omeka handle something like this.? It is for the New Orleans Afro-American Museum to create a similar system for slaves beginning with my Louisiana Slave Database 1719-1820 and expanding it over time and place with input from scholars, students and genealogists and other researchers.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/world/middleeast/13holocaust.html

  6. Gwendolyn– I’d have to hear more about the particular project to be 100% sure, but it sounds right up Omeka’s alley. Please feel free to send an email to outreach@omeka.org or join our user forums (http://omeka.org/forums) if you’d like additional support. Thanks!`

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