A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

History 2.0

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty on October 7, 2009


History doesn’t lay merely in the dusty pages of old books or the echoing halls of faraway museums. Sometimes it’s just an Internet search away. Thanks to Mason’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM), more and more history is being shared online, available to anyone with web access.

CHNM’s mission is, in part, to democratize history. Presenting and preserving the past using digital media brings the history lessons of yore to the tech-savvy students of today. To further that goal, the center has developed free software that more readily allows cash-strapped nonprofit organizations to create online exhibits that share their own varying missions with the world.

Called Omeka, from the Swahili word meaning “to display or lay out goods or wares; to speak out; to spread out; to unpack,” this software was designed by historians for historians.

“Projects such as the September 11 Digital Archive made us realize how much work—and how much money—it takes for institutions (and individuals) to mount high-quality and flexible exhibits online and manage the underlying collections,” says Dan Cohen, CHNM director.

Omeka is codirected by Sharon Leon and Tom Scheinfeldt. Leon explains the software’s goals: “We wanted to encourage smaller organizations to use the web to their advantage.” And many have. Since its initial launch, Omeka has been downloaded more than 6,000 times. Countless more users have visited an Omeka-powered site.

Its influence has been felt at small rural museums, metropolitan research libraries, state universities, and everything in between. Leon says Omeka allows organizations to increase their audiences without increasing their bottom lines.

“There’s a lot of knowledge that organizations just can’t afford to present to the world,” says Leon. “But we built something that the curators or archivists themselves could use to share their expertise so they have a much larger reach.”

Story Telling

When the prestigious Newberry Library in Chicago wanted to collaborate with other cultural organizations in the city for an online exhibit commemorating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Douglas Knox, director of publication and digital initiatives at the Newberry, suggested they test out Omeka.

Douglas Knox

Douglas Knox

“It’s hard to assemble the resources to be a publisher for most nonprofit institutions,” says Knox. “We need to work with others to do that. But using Omeka made collaboration easier.”

Partnering with the Chicago History Museum and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the Newberry was able to focus on one part of the online exhibit, Lincoln and the West: 1809–1860, while the Chicago History Museum took the lead on the Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. These two parts compose Lincoln at 200, the online exhibit that Newberry staff created with the help of Methodtree Inc., a Chicago-based web-design firm.

“Omeka helped keep us organized,” Knox says. “It was quick and efficient, and it enabled a small team to do a lot more in less time.”

Knox and his colleagues appreciated using software that was developed by a team already familiar with the needs and wants of archivists and curators. Unlike a traditional blog platform, Omeka allows its users to build a narrative, just as in a physical exhibit.

“Omeka gives us a way to store information but then also create a structured narrative,” Knox explains. “We can tell a story that you might tell in a gallery exhibit but also have cross-references and extend the information we offer readers.”

And such a resource is coming at an opportune time. “In the current financial environment, the Newberry will have fewer full-scale gallery exhibitions,” Knox says. “Omeka offers institutions such as the Newberry a vehicle for thinking creatively about digital publication. The Newberry has always combined the contributions of scholars and librarians in bringing the humanities to a broad audience, and Omeka helps us continue to do that in an electronic environment.”

Finding Flexibility

The citizens of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, take their town’s history seriously, says Steve Butzel, assistant director of the Portsmouth Public Library. So when Butzel wanted to create a way to share photos from the 1970s of an area of town that was torn down, he knew he needed a solid platform that would allow for two-way communication.

Sharon Leon

Sharon Leon

Out of the box, Omeka does not come standard with a commenting feature, which is what Butzel needed to encourage an online exchange with residents. But its developers had flexibility in mind, so Butzel was able to hire someone to create a comment “plug-in” that they could add to their site.

The site, tentatively titled North End Urban Renewal Historic Houses Project, is still in the development stage, but Butzel is looking for-ward to the information-gathering made possible with Omeka’s flexibility.

“It will allow us to tap into the increasing population that is using online social networking to communicate. If we’re able to do that successfully, then through the commenting feature we’ll be able to capture history that physically no longer exists. It will be a real notch in the library’s belt if we’re able to successfully bring the community together around this resource,” Butzel says.

As part of the open-source ideology, Butzel’s commenting feature will be made available to other users of Omeka—a fact he appreciates. “I was excited to learn that an academic community was stepping into this realm and making a contribution specifically around history and new media. [Blogging software] WordPress is huge, but there’s an intellectual underpinning in the Omeka project that I think is important and meaningful,” he says.

“There are other, more robust digital library applications we could use that would have cost more money but wouldn’t have done as good a job as a museum-like web experience,” says Butzel. “We expect to develop additional exhibits in the future using Omeka.”

Breaking Boundaries

But Omeka’s reach can stretch further than museums and libraries. Mark Tebeau, associate professor in the history department at Cleveland State University, uses Omeka as a teaching tool.

Tebeau, who runs the university’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities, teaches workshops to local kindergarten through grade 12 teachers on how to use Omeka in their classroom instruction.

“We work with teachers to think about American history. Instead of creating a lesson plan or PowerPoint presentation, they create an Omeka exhibit they can use in the classroom and share with other teachers,” explains Tebeau.

“For us, it’s the promise of creating a collaborative digital community. It breaks us out of the ivory tower. That’s the promise of Omeka.”

Tebeau also uses Omeka when teaching his college students. “It works really well for my students,” he says. “Now, instead of writing long papers, they create Omeka exhibits.” Tebeau also hopes to use Omeka to create a street-by-street exhibit of Cleveland by putting together images and oral histories.

When describing the effect Omeka has had on his work, Tebeau says, “That old TV ad sticks in mind: ‘We don’t make products, we make them better.’ Omeka is a tool that makes you more effective at the things you’re already doing well.”

“It has really allowed us to break the barriers between universities and the community—especially between teachers and museums.”

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Leading the Electronic Way

Digital History Book

The Center for History and New Media (CHNM) is celebrating its 15th anniversary. It’s the largest and most-funded digital humanities and history center in the world, having been awarded more than $20 million in grants since its inception. Each year, CHNM’s many project web sites receive more than 16 million visitors, and more than a million people rely on its digital tools to teach, learn, and conduct research.

In 1994, Roy Rosenzweig, the Mark and Barbara Fried Chair of History and Art History, founded the center. With Rosenzweig at the helm, the center became well known internationally. Rosenzweig was involved in a number of digital history projects, including web sites on U.S. history, historical thinking, the French Revolution, the history of science and technology, world history, and the September 11, 2001, attacks. His web-based project, History Matters, was one of the first projects of its kind and proved that Rosenzweig was thinking ahead as the online world grew.

In October 2007, Rosenzweig died of lung cancer. As a fitting tribute to Rosenzweig, CHNM used Omeka to create an online tribute to Rosenzweig that captures memories, photos, and other thoughts on his life.

His legacy continues and pushes the center toward bigger and better things. Just before Rosenzweig’s death, CHNM received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will total $7 million if fully funded over five years. The grant created an online National History Education Clearinghouse, which helps kindergarten through grade 12 history teachers become more effective educators and show their students why history is relevant to their daily lives.

CHNM is divided into three areas:

  • The education division helps teachers use new media to teach history more effectively and provides quality online sources for teaching history.
  • The public projects division provides online exhibits and archives, such as the September 11th Digital Archive, to the general public.
  • The research division develops tools and methodologies for digital scholarship.

“The center pioneers in all these areas simultaneously,” says CHNM director Dan Cohen. “We try to take a 360-degree look at the possibilities of the digital realm.”

One of the most successful tools they’ve developed is Zotero, a scholarly research application that runs in the Firefox web browser and improves the way research is stored, shared, and organized digitally. Zotero is changing the way that scholars and students do research.

“To have the opportunity to deeply examine these issues and have a top-notch staff that thinks about this full time is really amazing,” says Cohen. “It was Roy’s plan and forward thinking that put us where we are today. We hope to keep propelling that vision forward.”

—Tara Laskowski, MFA ’05


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