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Drupal Primer

By Brian Egan on July 7, 2009 6:19 PM | Permalink

After my post Thursday, I realized: Do people even know what Drupal is? I thought today I'd take a step back to explain what Drupal is and how it can help the library.

Why do we need Drupal?

To understand why we need Drupal (pronounced /ˈdruːpəl/), let us first examine our current website. We have a ton of material scattered throughout the site. Some of it is well organized, some not, and organizational structures differ from section to section. Some of it conforms to the Web Style Guide, some doesn't. Some content is duplicated in multiple locations. Some information is uselessly out of date. The site is probably not easily accessible for users with disabilities. The navigational structure is inconsistent and often confusing. Search engine positioning is only mildly addressed, and naming conventions for our pages differ drastically from section to section. We don't have any sort of versioning to keep track of changes to our website, nor do we really offer any social tools.

Furthermore, we use a number of individual applications which could be centralized. We have an isolated application for our online calendar, another for subject guides, and another for our Support system requests, to name a few.

Finally, we have a number of content editors, all working with a variety of tools to make updates to their pages. These tools include advanced applications like Dreamwaever, as well as web interfaces for data entry in certain circumstances. Dreamweaver is something of a beast, and can be complicated to learn.

To conclude, we have a number of structural problems. Some of them could be solved with our current system, but many are the natural outgrowth of our current workflow, which will continue to worsen as time goes by. These changes negatively affect the usability of our site as well as the ability to discover materials & services offered by the library. We need a system to help us organize and present this information in a smarter way, while breaking down the barriers between information silos. We believe the system to do this is Drupal.

What is Drupal?

First and foremost, Drupal is a Content Management System (CMS). So what is a CMS?

"A content management system (CMS) supports the creation, management, distribution, publishing, and discovery of [library] information.

It covers the complete lifecycle of the pages on your site, from providing simple tools to create the content, through to publishing, and finally to archiving.

It also provides the ability to manage the structure of the site, the appearance of the published pages, and the navigation provided to the users."

Source: http://www.steptwo.com.au/papers/kmc_what/index.html

In other words, Drupal can help us solve many of the problems mentioned in the first section. Drupal can help us:

  • Organize our material in a more logical structure
  • Create a publishing workflow
  • Make it easier to integrate Web 2.0 tools throughout our site, such as "related material" or "Share this with a friend."
  • Archive material when it becomes outdated, but without losing the page entirely, should it be needed down the road.
  • Reduce the amount of technical knowledge necessary to make page updates, making page updates and creation easier
  • Provide a more consistent navigation and design to our websites, improving both usability and branding.
  • Reduce duplication of content
  • Keep track of old & outdated material
  • Keep track of page changes, or "versions," much like on a Wiki.
  • Replace isolated systems, collapsing them into a larger structure.
  • Centralize our information into one place, making searching across a wide range of materials easier.
  • Make our web pages accessible
  • Improve our search engine positioning
  • Organize our XHTML, CSS, and JavaScript, making it much easier for us developers

In addition to these tools, Drupal is extremely flexible, and allows us to create custom applications, or "modules" as they're known in Drupal lingo. These modules could be tools to help students track their homework better; an iGoogle-like Library home page, which users could edit and modify; a "meet up" system where students could organize study sessions together in a library study room over the web. These tools would fully integrate with Drupal, rather than sitting isolated outside our current website structure. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

Why choose Drupal?

Think of a CMS as a tool for a job. Before we decide which tool we need, we have to understand the tasks the tool should help us accomplish. First and foremost, we wanted a system that would be easy to use for content providers and creators. We also needed a system which could be relatively easily maintained and extended. We wanted a proven solution, one that had worked well in large venues. The system needed to support multiple sites for our various branches. If the system was open source, we wanted, if necessary, to be able to get support and training workshops, and we also wanted to make sure it was an active project. Finally, we wanted a system with proper documentation.

We looked a number of options, initially ruling out nothing, though admittedly having our biases. First, we reviewed a number of open source and commercial applications. Many of the commercial CMSs were impressive, but weren't any more impressive than the open source offerings. In many cases, the commercial offerings were very "bare-bones," meaning they didn't offer a number of useful features Drupal or Joomla (another open source CMS) come with out of the box. In addition, there isn't much of an active library community built around commercial CMSs, whereas there is a vibrant library community built around Drupal and Joomla. Finally, there are also very good training and support providers for both Drupal and Joomla, meaning the quality of support was on par with commercial solutions.

So now you know why we chose open source, but why chose Drupal over Joomla? Joomla was also a real contender, but doesn't handle multiple sites as effectively as Drupal does, which was a major problem. Furthermore, many of Joomla's important core modules cost money. We're not against paying programmers for their good work, but it's simply much more convenient to remove a purchasing request from our workflow.

Drupal is, in it's own right, a very impressive piece of software. During the testing phase, I must admit that I found Drupal to be extremely flexible and elegant. It has a number of powerful modules that allow us to create a rich experience for our patrons, all while maintaining high quality, accessible code.

Conclusion

So there you have it. I hope you better understand what Drupal is, the problems it addresses, and the reasons we chose to go with Drupal. If you have any questions, please do ask them in the comments section!

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Thanks for your article. I actually started out development on Drupal but eventually switched to Wordpress. Perhaps I should take another look at Drupal.

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