Sunday, April 30, 2017

MHGS Digitizing Project -- Choosing Our Platform

We've known since we started the redesign of our society website that one of the purposes was to display digitized resources.  Unfortunately, we found that WordPress, while terrific for all our other purposes, wasn't really right for a digital collections home.

Why not?  Well, first consider what we wanted to do.  In our minds, a digital collections home needed to host a variety of digital file types -- documents, photographs, sound and video.  We needed to be able to attach a significant amount of metadata to these files -- labels with the people, places and things included, plus information about where the items came from, copyright information, etc.  All this needed to be searched easily from within the site and from Google.  Everything had to display quickly and with a minimum of fuss.  It had to handle lots and lots of files -- we have thousands of photographs alone.  And finally, we wanted it to look at least semi-professional, which we think will help convince local organizations to let us digitize their archival materials.

So what were our problems with WordPress?  First, terrible search.  Sorry WordPress, but it's true. The site searching capabilities are awful.  Second, WordPress isn't really set up to handle a database of images like we wanted. We didn't want to write individual posts about each photograph, which would take forever.  The album plug-ins we found were targeted more for art photographers, so the image display was lovely, but didn't handle the metadata we wanted to include.  And nothing seemed ready to scale to thousands of images, videos, documents and recordings.  We couldn't figure out how to make a WordPress option look professional.

So then we started looking in the archive community.  Once we ruled out the options we couldn't afford (PastPerfect), we were left with DSpace, Greenstone, and Omeka.  All three are open source programs, which means that the software is free, and targeted toward the academic archival market.

Greenstone was the first program I installed and tested.  At the time (mid-2015) it appeared to be the least supported and functional of the programs.  It was a possibility until we found something we liked better.

DSpace  is probably the most widely used among the big boys.  It actually seemed a bit too big for our purposes.  (Frankly, it intimidates the heck out of me.)

Omeka was kind of the Goldilocks product for us. Although it is used by professionals in the field, it is explicitly designed for those with very little technical experience.  There is even a version you can use for free without having to install it on your own website, although you lose some control.  It is actively under development and there's a good user-support base.  It's not perfect, but it's what we selected.

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