There’s actually quite a bit of variety when it comes to oranges. There are common oranges, blood oranges, navel oranges, mandarin oranges. You could even make a case for the clementine. The same is true for apples: you have your granny smith, your macintosh, your golden delicious, your crab apple, etc. Yet, at their core, apples are apples and oranges are oranges (what’s at the core of an orange?). While I’m being a bit facetious, my point is that when you compare something within a category, such as fruit varieties or digital history sites hosted by Omeka, there can be quite a bit of variety. There is a variety of purpose (why you made the site), variety of content (what you put on the site), variety of layout (how you organize the content and how visitors navigate it), and variety of design (to return to fruit-related adjectives, the flavor, color and texture). All of these variations can have quite an effect on the resulting website, even if its hosted on the same platform. To illustrate this point further, I’m comparing two Omeka sites, The Humboldt Redwoods Project and The Lomax Kentucky Recordings site, based on their variations in purpose, content, layout, and design. Along the way, I will analyze what I think each of these sites does well, and any areas where they could do better.
Each of these sites has a different purpose. The Redwoods Project site is a partnership between Humboldt State University’s Library Special Collections and the HSU Museum and Gallery Practices Certification Program “to celebrate our community’s relationship with the magnificent redwood forests that surrounds us.” Thus, the site serves to celebrate community, cultural landscapes, and the link between them. A second, less explicit goal is to help prepare students for work in museums and public history. The Lomex Recording Project, on the other hand, is a site “under the auspices the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.” The goal of this site is not merely to archive media content, but also to provide “free and complete access to these historic collections.” Additionally, rather than being a project hosted by a university, (the bulk of contributors to the Redwoods site are interns) the folk song site is primarily run by professional digital historians and archivists already in the field.
Sort of like comparing apples to oranges, it is difficult to compare purpose and say which one is better. You might have a personal preference, or be drawn to a site’s mission, but does that mean that one site is intrinsically better than the other? In my opinion, I find much to be admired about the Redwood Site’s, not only because I think we need to be more aware of the link between communities and their natural environments, but also because it helps to prepare budding professionals for careers in the public humanities. On the other hand, a strong case could be made by someone else in favor of the folk song site. I prefer apples, you might prefer oranges.
These sites also differ in the content one can access when they visit them. The Lomex Recording Project houses sound recordings of Kentucky folk music and folk lore created and recorded by individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. While individuals can contribute images to the project, that is not what it is intended for. The Redwoods Project, on the other hand, is driven by images and artwork. There’s at least one video, but no audio recordings. The reason for these sites’ different content stems from their different purposes. Again, it is hard to say that one type of content is qualitatively better than another.
Nonetheless, it is quite possible to compare the degree to which each of these sites has been successful at compiling content. For instance, the Kentucky Recordings project site has compiled a total of 1349 “items,” which in this case means audio recordings. The Redwood Project site, on the other hand, has a total of 161 “items,” mostly images or paintings. By the numbers, it would seem that the former project has been more successful at compiling content. On the other hand, the Lomax Kentucky Recordings project likely had a bigger analog archive to pull from. Also, it welcomes the public to contribute potential content to the site, while the Redwood project does not explicitly do so. An investigation of each project’s selection process would be useful, as well. Ultimately, at this point, the Kentucky Recordings project seems to have been more successful at collecting content. It’s a bushel versus a peck.
Despite having a common platform, these two sites also choose different methods to organize their content. This is important to know if you want to find something on either of these sites. There are two options to find something on the Humboldt Redwoods Project site’s homepage: “browse exhibits” or “browse items map.” When one clicks on “browse exhibits,” he or she can browse through all 4 exhibits, each of which has a theme. Alternatively, a visitor can browse by tag. If someone clicks on “browse items map,” though, she or he can browse all items (sorted by date added, title, or creator), or browse by tag. There is also an option to use a keyword search feature, or to browse items on a map (although the map option yields fewer results).
Your experience locating items on the Lomax Kentucky Recordings Project site will be a bit different. From its homepage, you have the option of clicking on “Listen to the Songs,” “Discover the artists,” “Explore the Counties,” or “Browse by AFC Collection.” Already, one is presented with more options. Within “Listen to the songs,” you can browse all, browse by tag, or keyword search. There’s also a drop-down menu, which allows you the option to browse by title, or by the categories “artist”, “genre,” or “instrument.” The artist category is organized alphabetically, as are the genre and the instrument categories. By clicking on “discover the artists,” you can explore the lives of several specific artists (similar to the “browse exhibits” feature on the Redwood site). By exploring the counties, you can visualize which songs came from which areas of Kentucky. Finally, you have the option to browse by collection, the option which, in my opinion, gives you the least guidance.
In a way, not having much prior knowledge about the content of these sites helps me to analyze their layout better. I think a site’s layout is effective if you can find items, whether you are an expert or a novice within a topic. I think the Kentucky Recordings Project is more successful at this. That being said, I think they might have been compelled to give site visitors more options because they have more content to organize.
While there is a bit of subjectivity in the elements of design, it is important for digital historians to remember that visual elements and navigation are important aspects of the site. In the case of these two sites, the Humboldt Redwoods Project seems to keep this in mind more. While the site is black and white, it seems polished and fits with the site’s the content. Towards the bottom of the homepage, this site has a scroll of images from its collection. At the bottom of the site, there are links to social media. The home page introduces the visitor to the site, its purpose, and its content. Each option to click on leads directly to what it says (that sounds a bit obvious, but not all the sites showcased do that).
Don’t get me wrong, The Lomax Kentucky Recordings Project is by no means a design disaster. However, there are more minor issues than with the other site. First of all, when you land on the homepage, there’s a bit of a jumbled appearance, which gives a false impression that the content is not well organized. Once you orient yourself, there’s a method to the madness. Interestingly, though, the appearance of the Humboldt site is more polished than that of the Lomax site.
Both of these sites do many things well. Ultimately, I think The Lomax Kentucky Recordings Project is the better archive, while The Humboldt Redwoods Project is a better digital history site. Perhaps that’s a fine distinction, but then again so is the difference between common and navel oranges.
Visit the sites discussed in this post for yourself:
The Humboldt Redwoods Project: https://hsuredwoodsproject.omeka.net/
The Lomax Kentucky Recordings: https://lomaxky.omeka.net/
What do you think? Which of these sites is more effective at compiling, organizing, and displaying content? What do you think makes for a good digital archive or digital history site? Do you prefer apples or oranges? Please leave comments.