DH Project Review- Women’s Worlds in Qatar Iran

The Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran digital humanities project is an archive containing images of documents and objects pertaining to the lives of women living in Iran during the Qajar period, from 1786 to 1925, but is wholly a digital endeavor (more on this later).

Technical Basics: The digital home of the archives is now the Harvard Library system accessed via its own web address (http://www.qajarwomen.org).  The entire digital archive interface was initially developed by an outside company called Historicus, Inc. which now appears defunct. This interface appears to work and function in a very similar manner as Omeka, but in the project’s FAQ they outline the technology running behind the scenes.

Financial Support: In 2009, the project received a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish the initial website. After this point in the project’s history as presented on their website, it is unclear exactly how the monetary support system after the initial grant works, and how much control the Harvard Library System exerts over the project.  There is a page dedicated to sponsors which includes Harvard, the NEH, and several foundations working toward the promotion of Persian culture in scholastic fields and general appreciation.

Language Support:  As this is a project/archive concerning a non-English speaking culture, presenting the material in the original language preserves the integrity of the contextual information for the item and respects the original culture. The main page for the Women’s Worlds of Qajar Iran allows the visitor to explore the website in English and in Persian Arabic.  The metadata and search features support both languages and switching back and forth between the languages is fairly simple.  All one needs to do is click on the relevant link in the upper corners ( left corner for Persian to English and right for English to Persian) and the viewer stays on the same page but gets the information in the other language.  This is a nice feature and some sites require the visitor to go out to a main page to change languages.  However, if you do not read either language, you are out of luck with this site as they do not appear to support other language translations.

Archival Items: The items in the collections remain with their respective owners allowing the digital component to transcend geographical constraints, ownership issues, and geo-political barriers. This is both a benefit and limitation of the archive.  On the one hand, it is great to view photographs, letters, documents, or items that belong to private parties around the world, but it means having the ability to handle the objects is extremely difficult if not impossible to orchestrate .  For documents this may not be a big deal, but for objects or artworks this can extremely limit scholarship as texture, tactility, and/or weight is best understood by physically interacting with the object.  Some collections/items do provide holding information in the metadata, but not all does.  Let’s look at one item in the collection:

This item is in an archive that one could theoretically track down and visit, but more concerning is the confusing and missing metadata.  The dimension field lists three different dimensions but does not explain what those mean and much of the contextualizing information is missing (this may be due to the repository not collecting that information when they acquired the item).

Another limitation of the database’s interface is the inability to see thumbnails if more than one image for an item exists.  For example:

Within this single entry, there are 33 images of the various pieces of stationary housed in the wooden box.  In order to view each of these I have go in and out of each link (there is no way to move between them with out coming back out to the item detail page).  It is cumbersome and frustrating as the individual pages are not even labeled.

Overall, this is a great project bringing light to women’s stories in particular period of Iran’s history.  Unfortunately, the lack of metadata displayed and clunky interface limit the usefulness of this archive.  Additionally, I do think the motivation to transcend boundaries and cross archives is beneficial and one that digital humanities and digital archiving is well-situated to achieve, but more thought needs to go into documenting information about the location/archive and details/metadata of the items.

Omeka Review

Omeka is a digital platform designed by the Corporation for Digital Scholarship whom also developed the Zotero platform which helps to organize and share research, as well as develop bibliographies.  While the organization utilizes the word corporation in their name, they are a not-for-profit company which began from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  They offer two versions of Omeka, a hosted(.net) and self-hosted version (software downloaded from Omeka.org).  I have not had the opportunity to work with the downloaded version, but in reading through the website and looking at the plugins offered I do think the self-hosted version does have more flexibility in design.

The biggest benefit of Omeka.net is that you can begin working and publishing straightaway. They offer a free trial that allows 500MB of storage space and limited plug-ins, but that is enough to get started and get used to the interface.  Omeka is best for projects encompassing lots of discreet items, but that does require lots of online storage space.

Omeka succeeds in providing an organizational structure for providing metadata for online archives.  The established categories are numerous and broad enough to allow designers to provide robust information.  The system also allows for multiple images for a single item which is helpful for presenting multipage documents or  providing multiple angles or details of physical objects. 

While the collections feature might be helpful for some projects, I actually found it rather limiting as objects can only be associated with one collection at a time.  I understand why the system is set up this way as it reflects the original method of organizing in an physical archive, but it does limit how the designer can relate items to each other.  In order to re-order or re-associate items you have to create an exhibit which requires a lot more work than simply creating a collection, which is similar to creating a photo album on Facebook or Flickr.

So, skipping over the details of collections, I’ll move to building an exhibit.  This part was not the most intuitive part of Omeka, nor does it provide much in the way of customization.  With the paid versions, the user has more modules to choose from in creating the exhibits.  The basic modules are text only, text with images, gallery, and file (I have a paid account and have access to image annotation, editorial, and location/map modules, although the image annotation block does not always load properly which is quite annoying).  You can re-order the modules, but there is very little customization within each blocks.  My biggest critique is the inability to easily change font size without creating bolded header-like text.  The option open up the html coding exists, but I failed to get the text sizing code to work…but I have limited experience and was going off a random tutorial I googled.

Below is a video of my final project exhibit using Omeka to give an idea of how the exhibit modules work.


Reflection on my first DH project

main exhibit page from ecotimberline.omeka.net

Holy crap this is a lot of work.

But I love it.

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what I want to do with the information and ideas I’ve gathered and developed for this project.  I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish in only a few short weeks, but I already see changes I want to make to this project.  I also have some ideas on how I approach and plan future projects.

As an art historian my future project will all be image heavy, just part of the field, but also makes for visually appealing digital projects.  One thing I will differently in my next project before I even touch a computer is to make a preliminary plan of what I think the site might look like.  I know this will change, but as I put together this project  I realized several things about the materials I gathered.  For example, many of my photos were not zoomed in enough, or included too much of the surrounding environment and thus made poor thumbnails.  I also realized that while I had a good understanding of the space and how everything fit together, I was missing contextualizing photos of the broader space.

From a technical perspective, Omeka was an easy and great way to start.  As a platform designed for online exhibits with images and text, a lot of the work was simple uploading and formatting.  There was a bit of a learning curve as the tabs are not super intuitive and the method for images feels a little backwards.  For example, the system presents you with fields to fill out before you come to the upload tab. I also realized I had to decide how I wanted to upload images.  Was each image its own item? No.  Multiple images for the same work of art or craft went into the same item.  But what about works in a series, should I group all of those together under one series or have an item for each component of a series? For this I asked myself, if one could reasonably only look at one component, then that should form the basis for an item.  But what about images from books?  I had a series of images from a unique book, but was unsure if I should upload each page separately and then combine in a collection, or combine them all under one item.  I ended up combine them under one item, but probably should have uploaded each page as its own item. Time consuming, but potentially easier to work with than it is now.

I also found that there was a lot of prep I needed to do before I felt I could even upload my images.  I needed to organize them in to relevant folders and then rename each file because a string of numbers and times are not as easy to keep track of as descriptive file names.  Once I uploaded the images, then I needed to begin to full out the metadata information (Dublin Core).  There was a lot I realized I simply did not have or did not know how I should fill out.  This is something I can plan for in the future by creating a guideline or work stream that includes gathering this information when I take a picture or gather materials in an archive .

As I began working with Omeka, I realized there were some serious limitations.  Storage space and lack of plugins providing versatility in the free version, and the inability to change simple things such as the font and font-size in the web version.  I solved the first hurdle by upgrading to a paid subscription.  I tried editing the html code to fix the second problem, but to no avail.  I finally just made myself stop trying because it was more important to get the project somewhat done rather than visually perfect but lacking content.

Overall, however, I would absolutely recommend Omeka as a beginners DH tool.  It is a tool that assumes the user does not have programming or design skills and because of this someone can simple plug in the relevant information in the various space and create a professional looking website as an end result.

You can check out my Omeka project here: ecotimberline.omeka.net