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As I am starting my final project using Neatline and Omeka, I thought it would be an appropriate time to critique these tools.
In his article, Jeff McClurken asserts that Omeka is a tool that challenges students to think creatively by making them uncomfortable. As McClurken points out, Omeka is free, it has a large number of useful plugins that provide multiple functionalities, and the basic site is easy to use. Building a complicated site does take more effort and background research, but that taps into McClurkens argument that we learn from being uncomfortable.
One of the most unique aspects of Omeka/Neatline is that it allows you to create a map out of something that isn’t a typical map. By typical map I mean a territory map, as Seth Long refers to it. Long argues that digital mapping interfaces allow multiple finite selectionsto be layered onto one another. In his post he refers mostly to maps of places, but Omeka/Neatline brings digital mapping one step further and allows for maps of any digital picture. A Neatline map could be of a famous painting, a poster with only words, or a city. It allows for mapping to go beyond physical location and enter into the world of mental maps.
In addition to producing unconventional maps, Neatline embraces the term “thick mapping” and provides the opportunity to combine stories, locations, and images in one cohesive exhibit. Nowviskie addresses how Neatline calls for drawing rather than simply creating which gives a more artistic sense to the program. I would go even further and say that Neatline allows authors to discuss, teach, and argue. The thick mapping abilities of Neatline make the “second text” (as refered to by Dodge and Kitchin) just as obvious as the first. Dodge and Kitchin argue that digital cartographies possess second texts that are conscious and unconscious ideological messages that must be deciphered. Neatline allows an author to portray their messages without much deciphering. It provides an inter-textual and multimedia platform that gives an author free reign on presentation and argument.
As with all digital humanities tools, Omeka and Neatline are not perfect. One of the main criticisms I have for Neatline is there is no simple way to demonstrate uncertainty. Reschuel and Hurni point towards the importance of mapping uncertainties in fictional literature, and their concerns can and should be applied to historical mapping. When mapping histories, it is important to note that most of the data comes from oral accounts, history books, drawn maps, and aerial photographs. With each of these resources, one can never recreate history with 100% certainty. If Neatline had a way to demonstrate uncertainties of locations and date ranges the projects would be more accurate (ironically by demonstrating their inaccuracies).
Overall Neatline is a useful tool (with a learning curve) that allows for comprehensive digital mapping exhibits. I would recommend it for any “thick mapping” project.