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Technology: Considering Drupal as a Content Management System

To explain content management and content management systems (CMSs), Elizabeth Black writes: “Web Content Management is the discipline of collecting, organizing, categorizing and structuring information that is to be delivered on a Web site. Content management systems support a distributed content model by separating the content from the presentation and giving the content provider an easy to use interface for adding content” [1]. Sadly, many CMS users working in information services settings do not have input in the selection of the CMS, as Ruth Sara Connell found in a study of CMS trends in academic libraries [2]. Black provides a helpful summary of the process used at the Ohio State University Libraries, including requirements gathering and trial evaluation of various alternatives.

As of 2014, Drupal is one of the most popular systems. Drupal’s biggest advantage is that it is open source and has a strong volunteer support and developer community. It is well established with a large user base, which makes it easier to find an experienced professional to manage the technical aspects. The most recent versions of Drupal have out-of-the-box responsive theming capability, which comes in handy as users increasingly access services via devices with narrower screens. These features have made it an increasingly popular platform among libraries, particularly academic ones. Connell found Drupal by far the most popular CMS among surveyed libraries [2].

Drupal’s chief disadvantages are its steep learning curve and its fiendish complexity. When members of the MEDLIB-L and LITA-L email discussion lists were solicited for thoughts and experiences with Drupal, one noted that Drupal seems to be one of the hardest open source CMSs to learn when compared to competitors like WordPress. However, another member commented that while WordPress is easier to use, Drupal was more customizable. Connell’s survey also found Drupal users less satisfied and more likely to want to switch than LibGuides or WordPress users [2].

The expected level of support from the institution is an important variable in considering a CMS. A CMS demands significant start-up resources, both technological (a PHP-enabled Apache web server, a mySQL database) and human. Furthermore, maintaining Drupal requires continuous maintenance of the code base. One of Connell’s respondents states, “Having dedicated staff is a necessity. There was a time when these tools could be installed and used by a techie generalist. Those days are over. A professional content person and a professional CMS person are a must if you want your site to look like a professional site” [2]. Strong local training, documentation, and support are key. One of the major advantages of a CMS is allowing nontechnical members of a team to contribute and update content: if users do not feel empowered or knowledgeable enough to be able to do that, this advantage is nullified.

It is also advised to have a sandbox to play in, learn, experiment, and make mistakes. For instance, the “View Unpublished” module permits content editors to draft unpublished Drupal content, so that they can revise it before making it publicly available on the web. Having a test or development version to accompany the live or production website is also essential.

Ignorance is something Drupal users of all levels learn to accept and embrace. It has become impossible for any one person to master the full body of knowledge or to become an expert in every aspect. For getting help, Drupal.org has how-tos on virtually every conceivable topic available; however, it is often written for and by experienced developers with jargon that can intimidate the less technically minded. In response, an entire industry of Drupal vendors has emerged offering training from beginning to expert levels. Lists of vendors offering training, hosting, and other Drupal services are available at the Drupal Marketplace. Also, local Drupal organizations may also offer training.

Users in academic libraries may be at a particular advantage, as Drupal adoption in higher education is exploding. The central information technology (IT) units at many universities are beginning to offer Drupal services to departments. Also, there are many library-specific resources, such as Ken Varnum’s Drupal in Libraries (Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2012).

Hopefully, this column provides a clearer understanding of Drupal and its applications in library settings. No matter the web development process, there are a wealth of resources and people to help assess and harness this increasingly ubiquitous platform.

References

  1. Black EL. Selecting a web content management system for an academic library website. Inf Tech Lib. 2011;30(4):185–9. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.6017/ital.v30i4.1869.
  2. Connell RS. Content management systems: trends in academic libraries. Inf Tech Lib. 2013;32(2):42–55. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.6017/ital.v32i2.4632.