Doing history with Omeka

In creating my Omeka exhibit this week I really gained a better feel for both navigating the online platform, and understanding its usefulness as a historical tool. Upon further use, I think perhaps the most ambiguous aspect about the platform was the number of organizational categories and the differences they place between adding items, creating collections, and exhibits. Otherwise, creating an exhibit was practically easier than adding and collating items.

My exhibit explores a series of particular documents to get a sense of how a specific historical narrative developed. Taken as a whole the mix of newspaper articles, government documents, and letters highlight the importance of historical interpretation, and show how certain primary sources gain historical meaning in the context of other documents.

I am particularly interested in how the Omeka platform provides new avenues for users to experience and interact with primary documents. This allows the casual user to go beyond a passive reading of a history text, and to connect with and explore the sources themselves, in effect “doing history.” As Sheila Brennan stresses, this provides limitless possibilities for making historical material more “discoverable, open, or extractable.”

On the one hand, in dealing with the actual interpretation of documents, the simplicity of access allows even the most amateur researcher to follow a string of logic and decode meaning from the material. In that sense, I think my small exhibition provides a cursory example of what it means to “do history,” at least in a more traditional academic sense. The Omeka platform has basically allowed for a way to turn an academic paper into an interactive digital format. One could follow right along with a text, and simultaneously delve directly into the sources if they were added as items in a collection.

What sets this apart is the way in which it allows the user to get a sense of the interpretative narrative while simultaneously being able to read and relate with the source material. It essentially provides an interactive platform where a user can examine, evaluate, and formulate their own opinion of the documents as they fit into the greater story/narrative.

Despite not belonging to the same aggregation of records in the sense of Jefferson Bailey’s discussion of the “archival bond,” my exhibit provides an example of how evidential relationship is of fundamental importance for the historian. It is important to utilize a document in a way that furthers the historical narrative without perpetuating falsehoods.

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