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Bringing 500 Years of Women’s Work Online

Back in 2015, Lisa Unger Baskin placed her extensive collection of more than 11,000 books, manuscripts, photographs, and artifacts in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History & Culture in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. In late February of 2019, the Libraries opened the exhibit “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” presenting visitors with a first look at the diversity and depth of the collection, revealing the lives of women both famous and forgotten and recognizing their accomplishments. I was fortunate to work on the online component of the exhibit in which we aimed to offer an alternate way to interact with the materials.

Homepage of the exhibit
Homepage of the exhibit

Most of the online exhibits I have worked on have not had the benefit of a long planning timeframe, which usually means we have to be somewhat conservative in our vision for the end product. However, with this high-profile exhibit, we did have the luxury of a (relatively) generous schedule and as such we were able to put a lot more thought and care into the planning phase. The goal was to present a wide range and number of items in an intuitive and user-friendly manner. We settled on the idea of arranging items by time period (items in the collection span seven centuries!) and highlighting the creators of those items.

We also decided to use Omeka (classic!) for our content management system as we’ve done with most of our other online exhibits. Usually exhibit curators manually enter the item information for their exhibits, which can get somewhat tedious. In this case, we were dealing with more than 250 items, which seemed like a lot of work to enter one at a time. I was familiar with the CSV Import plugin for Omeka, which allows for batch uploading items and mapping metadata fields. It seemed like the perfect solution to our situation. My favorite feature of the plugin is that it also allows for quickly undoing an ingest in case you discover that you’ve made a mistake with mapping fields or the like, which made me less nervous about applying batch uploads to our production Omeka instance that already contained about 1,100 items.

Metadata used for batch upload
Metadata used for batch upload

Working with the curators, we came up with a data model that would nest well within Omeka’s default Dublin-core based approach and expanded that with a few extra non-standard fields that we attached to a new custom item type. We then assembled a small sample set of data in spreadsheet form and I worked on spinning up a local instance of Omeka to test and make sure our approach was actually going to work! After some frustrating moments with MAMP and tracking down strange paths to things like imagemagick (thank you eternally, Stack Overflow!) I was able to get things running well and was convinced the batch uploads via spreadsheet was a good approach.

Now that we had a process in place, I began work on a custom theme to use with the exhibit. I’d previously used Omeka Foundation (a grid-based starter theme using the Zurb Foundation CSS framework) and thought it seemed like a good place to start with this project. The curators had a good idea of the site structure that they wanted to use, so I jumped right in on creating some high-fidelity mockups borrowing look-and-feel cues from the beautiful print catalog that was produced for the exhibit. After a few iterations we arrived at a place where everyone was happy and I started to work on functionality. I also worked on incorporating a more recent version of the Foundation framework as the starter theme was out of date.

Print catalog for the exhibit
Print catalog for the exhibit

The core feature of the site would be the ability to browse all of the items we wanted to feature via the Explore menu, which we broke into seven sections — primarily by time period, but also by context. After looking at some other online exhibit examples that I thought were successful, we decided to use a masonry layout approach (popularized by sites like Pinterest) to display the items. Foundation includes a great masonry plugin that was very easy to implement. Another functionality issue had to do with displaying multi-page items. Out of the box, I think Omeka doesn’t do a great job displaying items that contain multiple images. I’ve found combining them into PDFs works much better, so that’s what we did in this case. I also installed the PDF Embed plugin (based on the PDF.js engine) in order to get a consistent experience across browsers and platforms.

Once we got the theme to a point that everyone was happy with it, I batch imported all of the content and proceeded with a great deal of cross-platform testing to make sure things were working as expected. We also spent some time refining the display of metadata fields and making small tweaks to the content. Overall I’m very pleased with how everything turned out. User traffic has been great so far so it’s exciting to know that so many people have been able to experience the wonderful items in the exhibit. Please check out the website and also come visit in person — on display until June 15, 2019.

Examples of 'Explore' and 'Item' pages
Examples of ‘Explore’ and ‘Item’ pages

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