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Digital Archives and Data Management Proposal

When looking for data management systems to help me create a digital archive of all of my research, primary sources, photos, transcripts, etc., I am looking for something that is user-friendly because I am not intensely comfortable with computers and even less comfortable with web-design.  I am also looking for something that can be easily plugged into an existing website with relative ease, something that easily navigable and searchable for website patrons, and something built for academics and humanitarians is always a plus.  I looked at dozens of archiving softwares, blog site plugins, data management programs, Digital Asset Management systems, and database creation software in order to find something that would work well for my project and me.  I have narrowed this proposal down to four programs that I think could fit the bill, but obviously I can only choose one to use on my website.  Each programs brings something important to my project, but one stands out.  Adlib Archives boast being easy to use archiving software that stores all of your metadata to their secure servers as well as three easy to use search functions for patrons.  Past Perfect is a museum collections and archiving software that allows you to store all of your metadata on your own server, but also has a fully searchable database created as new pieces are entered along with their metadata.  Iview is a DAM, Digital Asset Management, system operated by Microsoft that helps users follow collecting protocols for downloading, renaming, grouping, archiving, and more, but may be difficult to use without the proper training.  Omeka is the last program discussed in this proposal and is known for being easy to use, being built specifically for humanities academics, and being free and open source content.  It is the only one that is completely free to users.

Adlib Archives is impressive because it takes and stores many different categories of metadata and patrons can search within each metadata field individually as well as queries across multiple fields of metadata.  Metadata fields for each photo in my archives can have information attached like the pieces condition, content and structure, Identity statement of each piece, notes, links to related materials, and you can add other metadata fields to further describe each piece.  It also meets all international museum/archive standards as well as web standards that make it internet ready with the use of MS-SQL, Oracle, or an Adlib DBMS platform.  The best feature of Adlib are the three search options: an easy search wizard that seeks a single term across all of the major metadata fields like descriptions and structures, a query by form that runs across every field of metadata, and an expert search in which patrons can search different terms in each field of metadata.  Like much of the software and programs I found for digital archiving, this one seems to require payment, but I haven’t found out what it costs or whether it is an annual fee or not.

Another program that requires a fee, but otherwise seems to be a great choice is Past Perfect. Past Perfect is built specifically for small museums and historical societies who are constantly acquiring objects and artifacts.  The original program is made for in house, small network intranet systems in individual museums, but there is also a means of putting these collections on the web using Past Perfect-Online, which enables to expand their audience to millions of Internet users.  The online program will either assist you in creating your own website or allow you to use a plugin to add the program to an existing website.  It also boasts easy to use search functions for website patrons.  The problem with this site is that the fees, while fairly modest for a museum with donor funding or federal funding, are far too high for my project at over $1000 to purchase and $400 annually for server space and hosting.  Therefore, if there is not a museum or collection on campus that is already using Past Perfect that would allow me to piggyback their system for my own vt.edu URL, it would highly impractical to pursue this option.

A third option would be the IView Digital Asset Management (DAM) system, created by Apple, but then sold to Microsoft about six years ago.  It is developed specifically for digital photography, in which DAM refers to the protocol for downloading, renaming, backing up, rating, grouping, archiving, optimizing, maintaining, thinning, and exporting files for each photograph that is stored on the server.  This could be particularly useful to me since every exhibit or piece of archival data I will have in this database will be in photograph form.  It will assist with easily creating and maintaining the metadata that will be useful in describing my artifacts.  This software helps sort, track, back up, convert and archive all of the photos and digital scans that I take, and makes it easy to store, view, control, and manipulate the information and metadata I will have collected.  One problem with this software is that it is also fee based, and it lacks sophisticated search and query functions on the backend as well as the front.

The final option I found is Omeka, created by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University by Humanities specialists, for Humanities, and is free and open sourced so that all users can assist in creating new plugins, fix bugs in the system or coding, and generally answer any questions that new users have through the constantly running forums.  Jeremy Boggs writes that Omeka falls at a crossroads of Web Content Management, Collections Management, and Archival Digital Collections Systems, which will make this program great for project since it is already web-based, easy to install, and even easier to use.  Omeka is designed with non-IT specialists in mind, allowing users to focus on content and interpretation rather than programing.  Its “five-minute setup” should make launching an online exhibit or archive as easy as launching a new blog, and the redesigning of the pages is made easy through there simple and flexible template system.  I like Omeka because it is made by people like me for people like me, which means that we often share many of the same concerns and have a lot of the same experiences with computers, that is to say lack of experiences with computers.  I hope that I can use Omeka to allow me to share primary source collections, build online exhibits, display documents, create digital archives with the content that I generate throughout my research, and share my personal research with the world.

At this point I would like to use Omeka to create my archives and database because it was made with people like me in mind, by people who share a similar skillset.  I do not want to spend too much time caught up in the digital aspects of this project and spend months and months learning how to write HTML5, CSS3, JAVA, My-SQL, and other languages from the bottom up just to get a mediocre website, when I could use these open-source programs and tweak them to attain much better results.  It is not that I am lazy or do not want to work, it is about using my time most efficiently and not wasting too much time reading dozens of how-to manuals to teach myself a handful of computer languages, when I could really just search for a few ways to redesign a site and programs that already work to make them work better for me.  Omeka taught me that it’s better to use the community around you to get better results that to wander aimlessly trying to do everything on your own.  The internet is all about collaboration and sharing what you know with everyone else, and that is also what I want my website to be about, sharing my ideas on how 19th century culture affected sports and leisure and how that affected the ideals of masculinity during that particular crisis of masculinity.

My hope is that Omeka allows me to focus more on building content because it will provide me with the tools to change my site and keep the cost of the site down without sacrificing design and technical quality.  The open source content is fantastic because programmers can open the backend, and see where problems lie and write code that fixes the problem or perhaps write code that fixes problems that the developers didn’t even know were problems yet.  Members of the development team as well as Omeka users with technical experience have designed dozens of plugins for Omeka, and they are all free to any user of Omeka.  I am planning on using a few of these plugins myself; MyOmeka plugin allows site patrons to create profiles and tag and like material that is relevant to them, the dropbox plugin allows me to connect my dropbox account which would be useful as I add saved data from my dropbox to the Omeka program, the exhibit builder plugin will allow me to create and maintain exhibit pages that group related pieces together to mimic walking through an exhibit hall to examine pieces that are relevant to each other.  There are other plugins available that I have not had a chance to look through yet, but I bet there will be others that I can use in my project as well.

To help me choose a program I consulted Ryan Speer, Digital Archivist at Virginia Tech Special Collections.  Although we missed each other a few times when I visited his office, we have talked via email about some broad aspects of his job and a recommendation that I use Omeka for web publishing of the archives and digital exhibits.  Speer says that he has used Omeka in the past for web publishing purposes with great success, and that most of the other software and programs I found were meant more for in house networking use and not very easy to use on the web.  We have plans to meet in the coming weeks and further discuss his duties, my duties and requirements in this project, and how Special Collections can help me throughout the process of this thesis.

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