Design and Functionality

Overall, Civil War Governors of Kentucky is very pleased with Omeka as a publication platform. In fact, the project plans to continue to expand the size and functionality of the Omeka site rather than develop a new beta site to handle annotated documents.

Themes and Design

Developer/designer Anneliese Dehner created a custom Civil War Governors theme for the site. Omeka themes, like those in WordPress or other common sites, arrange Omeka content fields on the page. The Civil War Governors theme includes a header with rotating historical images from the Library of Congress, a navigation menu, and KHS branding. The footer has linked graphic logos of major funders of CWGK work. The custom homepage allows users to encounter the documents in a variety of ways—serving as an advertisement for the site's functionality. The search bar allows simple keyword searches and has a link to the advanced search page (custom built by Dehner to take advantage of Solr capabilities). Users can also explore documents by genre—correspondence, petitions, etc.—or navigate through featured collections and exhibits, which can be rotated by staff through the back-end interface.

Design elements from the homepage continue throughout the site, including subtle gray horizontal lines with stars and the outline of the state of Kentucky. About and Reference pages were created using the HTML editor in the Simple Pages plugin. These pages are mostly text and straightforward graphics and fit within the design vision of the site with little more than the simple horizontal lines and the constant header and footer.

Exhibits—custom collections of uploaded Omeka items arranged and displayed with interpretative text using an intuitive editor—are easy to create and manage. To date, CWGK has expanded its blog series, classroom exercise, and podcast, The Caroline Chronicles, into a new networked interface of the identifiable people, places, and organizations found in her story. Planned exhibits will illustrate other curriculum materials and illustrate how CWGK set and maintains its documentary editing processes and policies. The first of these is to be a collection of documents which fell outside of the CWGK date or authorship scope for interesting reasons, showing how careful editors must be to follow their own rules and know when to apply them.

The CWGK staff thought most carefully about the item viewer and search pages, drawing on their experience with their own collection and also as researchers and users of other sites to make these interfaces—the heart of the digital documentary edition—make sense to its audiences.  The item viewer lays out the document facsimile PDF and the transcription side by side along with a combination metadata/citation/download column below the transcription. The metadata fields pull from Omeka's Dublin Core fields, the Chicago style citation is automatically built from the same, and the PDF download uses a customized plugin and additional PHP libraries to create an image branded with the unique document URL, the download date, and a permissions statement. CWGK was insistent on this branded PDF system to protect the property rights of its partner institutions and prevent raw images from being downloaded en masse. There were trade-offs in this arrangement, however. CWGK had to disable the pop-out functionality of its PDF viewer on the item page because the user could save a copy of the PDF from that enlarged window. Until CWGK is able to disable that download option within the PDF Embed plugin, users are still able to enlarge the document within the viewer box and download the branded PDF for detailed viewing.

Startup editions or those growing from beginnings as a personal or class project will likely want to develop a custom theme for their site as funding (or staff skills) allow. A significant reason that CWGK intends to stay with this Omeka site long-term is because of its attractive design and the ability to create complex and specific functionality with the use of stylesheets and plugins rather than the modification of core files. The important part to remember about investing funds or staff time in creating a custom theme for the site is that the majority of those costs are up-front. After the basic structure of the site is laid out, staff without detailed coding knowledge can upload items, add metadata, and create pages and exhibits on their own. The site can continue to grow as the edition grows in size and complexity without continual design help. That being said, careful attention should be paid during the design phase to what plugins and third-party tools the project wants to use immediately and which ones may need to come into play later on. The designer will not only have to create visual space for the tools to work (adding fields or buttons) but will also have to take care that core Omeka functions or other plugins do not interfere with one another.

Software and Server

The self-hosted version of Omeka runs on a Linux server, a common platform for open-source software development. Most of the state servers in Kentucky, however, run Windows. CWGK was able to set up a Linux virtual machine with the state IT office, but doing so required finding and working with a Linux specialist within that department and billing some extra labor hours to set up the virtual machine and install the software. This was all dealt with through a few days of preparation work before active development began and may not be a concern at different institutions (say, a university) with a more active development community.

Another issue common to all software but still important to potential Omeka adopters is maintaining interoperability over time. CWGK pieced together assorted plugins and third-party tools to achieve the functionality the project desired, but every update to the individual plugins, the Omeka core software, and the host server brings the risk of throwing one or more pieces out of alignment and breaking parts of the site. A website needs to be continually maintained, and projects should budget not simply for the baseline hosting fees but also reserve some funding for troubleshooting, too.

With these maintenance issues in mind, CWGK intends to create a locally accessible duplicate development instance of its site on the state server. This allows the project staff and developers to test solutions to problems before applying changes to the live site. In the future, this will be a testing ground for new features and tools so that the project can continue to serve its existing content to the public while strengthening its analytical capabilities.

The duplicate development instance is also a critical backup for the pages and exhibits that make up the CWGK site beyond the documents. While the Simple Pages and Exhibit Builder plugins make the creation of pages easy through a simple HTML toolbar and text box, there is no versioning capability on these pages. Changes are permanent, which is never a problem until it is.

Collections Management and Searching

The site continues to function well with over 10,000 items uploaded, and the project is confident that it will continue to do so as more go in. The collection structure is intuitive and useful for large, diverse projects that deal with multiple repositories. It took time to develop a procedure for batch importing the project's TEI-XML documents and their corresponding PDFs—including Dehner developing the new DropboxTEI plugin. After the pathway was created, however, CWGK has had few problems uploading new documents, nesting them within the proper collections, and mapping their metadata to the correct Dublin Core fields.

Though the system of grouping items into collections works well in most cases, CWGK has discovered some flaws. In the Omeka interface at the item-level view, the user is presented with links to next and previous documents.  A user might intuitively believe these links will provide access to the next or previous document in a collection or set of search results. However, Omeka links to the next or previous item by the automatic item number that is assigned when the item is added to the system. If the collection is not uploaded in its entirety, its items may be displayed out of order if users browse using these buttons. This is an issue which has sparked much discussion on the Omeka forums, particularly as it pertains to retaining order when paging through search results. We believe this is contrary to what users will expect and have elected to remove these links until we or the Omeka community can come up with a solution.

The search results page takes advantage of the Solr search plugin's faceting capacity. Faceting is a way of narrowing search results by metadata categories in the way that many e-commerce sites do. In fact, Solr is a popular tool for major online retailers. In the CWGK context, a user who is browsing or who has initiated a keyword search can limit their results by facets such as repository, collection, document genre, and place and date of creation. For many web users today, starting from a broad keyword search and narrowing results with facets to the correct set of items is intuitive. However, the CWGK staff had learned to construct complex initial queries using an advanced search page as users of earlier digital history sites. An advanced search page works in precisely the opposite way as a faceted search. Instead of starting broad and narrowing in, it works to create a complex query that delivers narrow results from the outset. Omeka's out-of-the-box search engine has this advanced search capability but not the ability to refine search results that Solr provides. So, Dehner designed an advanced search page that adapted Solr's engine to deliver a small, specific set of results from one or more metadata categories. CWGK users are thus able to discover items in ways that fit their personal preference and research needs.

Though the Solr Search plugin is designed to allow highlighted search terms in returned results, the CWGK team has not yet been able to make this functionality work on its site. We believe the issue can be resolved with modifications to the CWGK theme files to recognize and display the highlighted terms.


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