Update #2 on the Oberlin Community History Hub Project

This week working on the Oberlin History Community Hub I’ve been thinking a lot about usability, searchability, and design for the site. A key issue that I’ve been grappling with is how to best add and tag material to make it searchable by a user. I focused on adding digital history projects to the site this week. These are already existing DH projects that have been created by Oberlin professors, students, or archivists. I had initially planned to add each project as a single Omeka item, to describe its contents, and to include key people, events, or topics the project covers in the description or subject metadata so that a project could be discovered using a range of search terms. I also planned to assign tags for the most important themes and time frame of the project so it could be found through the browse tag function.

But as I started to work on the Digitizing American Feminisms Project, I found flaws in my plan. That site includes over twenty short “mini-editions,” which are projects that feature several digitized items from the Oberlin College Archives accompanied by introductions that describe and contextualize the documents. There is a project on the courtship letters between one of Oberlin’s future presidents and his fiancée, for example, which includes discussions of 19th century courtship rituals. Another project contextualizes the letters of one of the Oberlin missionaries who was killed in the Boxer Rebellion. Each project focuses on either an Oberlin College or Conservatory graduate or explores some aspect of the community’s history. As I worked, I decided that making each project an individual Omeka item would make it much easier for users to find and use them. If I had only created one item for the entire site and added lots of terms to that single item as subject metadata, the Digitizing American Feminism site would have come up in so many different searches that it would have been essentially meaningless. Users looking for a specific issues—let’s say more information on missionaries—would have had to navigate through the entire project looking for the material that focused on missionaries. By making each smaller mini-edition its own item, each can now be found when searching or browsing for more specific subjects.

While creating twenty-one different Omeka items out of one digital project took a great deal of time, it also gave me a chance to learn more Omeka shortcuts. I added each new item into a newly created collection and then used the bulk metadata editor to add the metadata shared by all of them to all of the projects at once. I plan to use what I’ve learned about uploading items more efficiently when I do the same work with another digital project that includes biographical exhibits on twelve different African American female Oberlin graduates.

This week I also thought more deliberately about the use of tags to assist with searching. I learned how to edit and delete tags and I started reviewing tags I had already created to consolidate terms or to get rid of tags that have been used infrequently. The existing search by tag function works but I find it visually unappealing. We would prefer to construct a generous interface for exploring the materials similar to those on the Manly Local Studies Image Library, where each tag is represented by an image and clicking on the image brings the user to a screen that lists every item associated with that tag. We are still trying to figure out how to do that on Omeka or if it’s possible to do without serious coding skills.

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