Using Omeka to Build Digital Collections: The METRO Case Study

The following chapter excerpt is from the fourth section of Digitization in the Real World; "One Plus One is Greater Than Two: Collaborative Projects." A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of D-Lib MagazineDownload the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase the complete book online at 

View the collections here.


Jason Kucsma (Metropolitan New York Library Council)
Kevin Reiss and Angela Sidman (City University of New York)


2011-04-18_1005 The digitalMETRO project was born from the Metropolitan New York Library Council's (METRO) 2007-2010 Digital Library Services Plan. The plan serves as a guiding document for METRO's work in helping member libraries build and maintain unique digital collections and provide access to them online. Since 2005, METRO has provided over $300,000 in digitization grants to fund over 30 digitization projects. METRO also provides a diverse curriculum of workshops focusing on digital conversion, metadata for digital collections, digital collection management software, and related areas of emerging technologies for libraries. In addition to ensuring these programs continue to provide training and resources to member libraries, the Digital Library Services Plan also recommends the creation of a directory of digital collections in the METRO membership.

With the charge of creating a directory of digital collections, Jason Kucsma, METRO's Emerging Technologies Manager, served as Project Manager and assembled a small project team to begin working on the directory in October 2008. He recruited Angela Sidman, then a Metadata Librarian at the Mina Rees Library at City University of New York's Graduate Center, to serve as the Metadata Librarian for the project. Kevin Reiss, then the Systems Librarian at the Mina Rees Library, was recruited as the project's Web Developer.

Choosing Omeka

One of the first decisions we had to make was which collection management system we would use to build and deliver the directory on the web. We considered three different options. METRO licenses a hosted CONTENTdm (CDM) instance from OCLC, so that was first considered as an option. Sidman and Reiss had worked extensively with CDM to build the METRO-funded Digital Murray Hill Project. While CDM is a system that supports collections with robust metadata and that contain a wide array of digital formats it lacks some characteristics that are desirable in a modern web digital exhibition tool. The out-of-the-box CDM user interface makes it difficult to browse collections by subject and set, and CDM does not support any of the interactive features that many users expect in a web interface such as tagging, social networking, and a mechanism to accept end-user feedback on the web. Though CDM does provide a basic Application Programming Interface (API) that allows for some modification of default CDM behavior, we felt that this API was an inadequate tool for building the types of features we wanted to include in the digitalMETRO website.

Our interest in deploying a feature-rich digital exhibition tool next led us to consider Omeka, a relatively new open source collection management system that was created by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. The Omeka software was the closest option to another open-source web content management system,WordPress, that we considered using for our project. WordPress has well-documented theme mechanisms for customizing the display of WordPress content, and an expanding pool of plug-ins that be used to modify content behavior. Unfortunately, WordPress does not have a well-developed mechanism for supporting the types of collection-building workflows and metadata-creation common to archives and libraries, and creating a plug-in to support these activities was beyond the modest scope of this project. Our exploration of potential content management systems overlapped with the Fall 2008 release of the 0.10 beta version of Omeka, and the growing number of projects using the system in beta made it worth considering.

Additionally Omeka's developers appear to have taken design inspiration from the highly successful general purpose open-source content management system Wodpress. Wordpress is widely known for it's ease of install and high-level of functionality. In this vein, Omeka developers have touted the platform as a "next generation web publishing platform for museums, historical societies, scholars, enthusiasts, and educators." Our project team thought libraries might also fit into that family, particularly smaller libraries with limited technical staff or financial resources to build and deliver digital collections online. The simplicity of installing and configuring the Omeka system rivaled WordPress's ease-of-use, leading CHNM Director Dan Cohen to suggest Omeka is “Wordpress for your exhibitions and collections.” Omeka also utilizes the same theme and plug-in mechanisms Wordpress utilizes to provide omeka users a means to customize and create new system behavior. 

According to the CHNM website: "Omeka provides cultural institutions and individuals with easy-to-use software for publishing collections and creating attractive, standards-based, interoperable online exhibits. Free and open-source, Omeka is designed to satisfy the needs of institutions that lack technical staffs and large budgets."  

Omeka was also an attractive choice because the strong and flexible approach to metadata representation built into the software. Additionally, Omeka Developer Dave Lester affirmed an advantage Omeka has for use in libraries and archives over a general-purpos CMS like WordPress on his blog, Finding America, “WordPress doesn’t use structured metadata the way that scholars, libraries, and archives do. We have controlled vocabularies, 50 ways of classifying the same thing, and need a system that allows us to easily do that.” 

While Omeka does not currently support controlled vocabularies in the sense that catalogers use to maintain authority control for records, comments like this marked what we felt was a shift within the Omeka developer community from a focus on archives and museums to the digital collection building pursued by libraries. This, combined with the fact that Omeka appeared to be quickly developing a community of users and developers actively creating new features and posting improvements to the software, reinforced our decition to adopt Omeka for the digitalMETRO platform. Also, this relatively low-risk project would allow us to test the viability of Omeka as a collection building and exhibition platform that could be recommended to METRO members and othes small and medium libraries and archives.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase the complete book online at


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