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Can library techies rock Drupal?

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on January 5, 2009 - 9:26am

The Internet has leveled the publishing playing field, according to common wisdom. No need to maneuver your way past print’s gatekeepers, just learn a little HTML and you’re off! No wait, that’s not quite it...not everyone wanted to devote time and energy to learning HTML. The level playing field had a few bumps. Blogs were supposed to solve that problem, so that if you felt compelled to share your thoughts with the world, you get yourself a blog.

Content Management Systems may have provided that level playing field for organizations. A CMS distributes the work of website updates and maintenance to many employees. A library with a great PR person or fantastic writer on staff can let them loose on the library website without worrying about technical skills or issues. But is the playing field truly level, or does the CMS present just another bump in that field?

In my former technology librarian positions, I looked at the work of the library field’s more brilliant tech folk (including my current coworker, John Blyberg) and thought to myself “that’s great, but out of my league.” I come from Dorothea Salo’s “beat things with rocks until they work” school, so I knew I would not be implementing SOPAC 1.0 anytime soon (SOPAC 2.0 is another story- I would have gotten out my best rocks and clicked download). How far can blunt instruments and persistence take us?

A letter from Kyle Jones in December’s American Libraries got me wondering about the difficulty of using a CMS. He argues that Drupal’s “steep learning curve” is too much for most libraries. My administrative experience with Drupal is limited to some tinkering with a hosted install a few years ago, I sought the opinion of a tech librarian who I knew had been teaching himself Drupal. I asked him if it is really that hard to learn to administer Drupal. He thought for a moment and said that it was “not any harder than learning to administer an ILS.”

Comparing a proprietary, complicated, industry-specific piece of software like a commercial ILS to the open source, widely used CMS is a little like comparing apples to aardvarks, and it leaves me wondering about our field’s expectations of its techies.

Sure, many libraries have programmers and network types and geeks of all stripes on staff. But many just have a librarian or two who learned IT on the job and use Google, trial and error and occasional consultants to fix new problems. The network, the email server and the ILS are all fair game to a technically inclined staff member, so why not throw Drupal or another CMS into the fray? What are we collectively deeming acceptable with respect to training?

Those working at smaller libraries will no doubt respond that they can’t afford staff with extensive technical training. What about giving the self-taught techie in your library time to learn Drupal or work on another project with a high cost for entry? How about coordinating with area libraries to offer a workshop for local technology librarians? Or setting up a technology barter system with IT staff from other organizations?

Tough economic times mean smaller budgets for training, conferences and the usual routes to expertise. I’d like to hear from librarians who have jumped into a CMS and those who want to make the leap, but haven’t. For those that drool over Drupal sites but haven’t tried them out yet, what’s holding you back? Time? Training? Support from your organization?

If you have taught yourself a CMS, what was your experience? Was it harder than updating the holiday list, running a report or changing location codes on your ILS? Put down your rocks for a moment and inspire us to add something to our New Year’s Resolutions.

Comments (7)

Wow! I seem to have touched

Wow! I seem to have touched a nerve and then I ran away from the Internet to focus on the opening of the New Darien Library. You have all posted some wonderful links that will help shorten (or is it flatten?) the Drupal learning curve for librarians.

The overall picture I'm getting is that Drupal administration can be approached on a variety of levels. Librarians (and perhaps coders?) have a perfectionist streak that makes learning a new tool even harder. Using Christopher's tiers, most of us are at tier 1, but don't want to approach a project until we're at a tier 3.

Education is a big component here. Polly-Alida and Christopher both mention classes and I think that would go a long way to fix the evangelism gap that Kyle mentions. As Bill points out, a lot of the issues surrounding a move to a CMS are IA-related, something that is taught in LIS schools and should be considered as fundamental as a Reference class for librarians.

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments, great links and interesting discussion.

Drupal is hard. Reason

Drupal is hard. Reason isn't so much the technology, it's the PHP, HTML, CSS, and MySQL database you have to figure out. Plus you have to have your server configured correctly with the correct PHP version and then there's making sure you're running the correct server software (most likely you are not a big problem). It goes on and on...the little things that need to be in place.

If you do want a Drupal site then getting all those books mentioned above will help, so will a continuing edu class on PHP and Drupal. But once you've learned it so many things in open source world will open up.

The notion that Drupal's

The notion that Drupal's learning curve is too steep for librarians just doesn't hold up.

In his comment, Kyle Jones cites information architecture as an issue. Good IA within a web site is as much a planning issue as a technical/execution issue. Often, poor IA arises due to a lack of planning, or a poor design/build process, which is a human flaw, rather than a software glitch.

The notion that you need to know code to run a Drupal site is another myth. I recently wrote a book (Drupal for Education, put out by Packt) targeted for people new to Drupal, with *no* knowledge of PHP or html/css. It covers CCK, Views (as well as numerous other modules), installing Drupal, and maintaining your site securely. The idea that Drupal is beyond the reach of non-developers is a myth. Another great resource for people new to Drupal is Using Drupal.

The one area where some familiarity with css (and possibly PHP) can be useful is in designing a clean, unique theme. While a lot can be done with themes using only css, a working knowledge of the theming system is useful. And yes, this type of work can be difficult. Impossible; no. Difficult; yes. But, the look and feel of a site is a separate matter from the functionality of a site, and there are a large number of freely available themes on that offer flexible layouts with valid xhtml/css.

In addition to the sites listed by Christopher Harris, another useful resource is the Drupal in Education group.

Drupal, like all technological tools, has its quirks. However, its core strength is its ability to organize and categorize content. One of the main stumbling blocks to people learning Drupal involves mastering Drupal's core taxonomy module; in my experience training people how to use Drupal, librarians have been particularly adept at grasping this concept. So, can library techies rock Drupal? Yes, yes, and yes.

I'm squarely in the 'hit it

I'm squarely in the 'hit it with a rock' crowd and learned HTML one Saturday afternoon in 1994 when there just wasn't much HTML to learn. Since then I've used many different web development tools and all of them had learning curves - of varying inclines.

For me, Joomla & Drupal did have steeper learning curves than some other tools. But they also have more features and offer more possibilities. I clearly fall into Chris' "Tier 1" user - I've been able to get some content up and, with the help of a few of those rocks Kate mentions, installed some additional functionality. Joomla & Drupal remind me a bit of my super duper washing machine - when I first bought it, I just used the basic cycle and it got my clothes clean. With time I've mastered some additional cycles and my clothes are better off for it. :-)

After more than 10 years of teaching web development classes for library staff, I have no doubt that Drupal & Joomla are accessible to any library techie who is willing to invest some time in learning, playing & exploring. By examining how the tools work, you can determine if they are a good fit for your library. The most important thing is to figure out what sort of web presence your library needs and then find the tools to get you there.

I'm excited to see a number of library systems helping their member libraries get started with these tools by providing hosting, installation, training and support. Several years ago, I worked with the Southern Adirondack (NY) Library System ( to help their member libraries get started using WordPress as a simple CMS for their websites. It was a good fit for their needs. There are many other systems around the country doing this with WordPress. And recently, Laura Solomon at OPLIN posted about their Drupal based website project ( that looks really exciting.

Maintaining a professional looking website that is accessible, easy to navigate and meets our user needs, is by no means a simple task. Whether it's done by someone who hand codes html, uses wysiwyg tools like Dreamweaver, or a CMS package, it takes time and skill and for many of us, probably a good supply of those rocks.

Is the assumption that

Is the assumption that librarians are unable to tackle any sort of learning curve for software because they are too busy putting their hair up in a bun?

In no way do I believe this at all, especially considering my workplace environment where it is highly encouraged to try any new piece of software you so desire.

All that I ask from columnists is that they accurately describe the pros and cons of the technologies they evangelize. This is something that I see being ignored too many times.

In terms of Drupal, I do believe that there is a steep learning curve involved in mastering this particular CMS. Four years to learn a particular technology seems to stretch your "ease of use" argument a little thin. Sure, anyone could login to and compose a blog post, but we're in the business of information and organization of that information - I believe we do a disservice to our users by barely getting by with a CMS that we don't know how to fully administer or implement in ways that reflect good information architecture.

I just ask that we all become a little more realistic. I'm not technologically "shushing" everyone, I just don't agree with ill considered evangelism.

Chris, what's your take on learning CMSs in LIS graduate schools?


Is the assumption that

Is the assumption that librarians are unable to tackle any sort of learning curve for software because they are too busy putting their hair up in a bun?

Is this the LISbloggers version of Godwin's law?

I am a bit shocked at the

I am a bit shocked at the very negative view Kyle Jones takes in his letter from American Libraries. Is the assumption that librarians are unable to tackle any sort of learning curve for software because they are too busy putting their hair up in a bun? Of course librarians can learn how to use software like Wordpress and Drupal to create simple but powerful (and very nice looking) websites. Thank you for helping to clear up these misconceptions.

Now, I must admit a certain amount of bias as the co-author of the Library Technology Reports issue on "Drupal in Libraries" but I think that our successes with Drupal provide a nice model. We don't have a technology department or a web development team, rather three of us taught ourselves Drupal over the last four years. And guess really wasn't that hard. Since then, we have been doing Drupal workshops and having great success with a two tier approach.

Tier 1: Casual Use
The whole point of a content management system is to provide a toolkit that does the hard (i.e. computer code) stuff for you. At the risk of continuing the glossing over of the learning curve, I would briefly point out that the hardest part of using these two software packages is the installation. If you are not going to outsource to a host that provides installation services, then one would assume that you have a web server and at least know how to copy a folder from one place to another. As long as you know your password for the MYSQL database, you are all set and the installation scripts for Drupal and Wordpress do the rest. LISHost and a slew of other mainstream commercial vendors all offer pre-configured Drupal and Wordpress sites, often with automatic updates, as part of their hosting packages. For most libraries, this is a much better option anyway as it alleviates the burdens of hardware maintenance, backups, and software updates on the server.

After installation, you can get started creating content. See, that is the point of this: Step 1) Install. Step 2) Create content. Then over the course of the next bit, you can move on to the advanced learning like installing new modules or using a different theme. Again, most of this just involves copying folders into your Drupal or Wordpress directory, and then a few clicks in the site management interface. Most of what most libraries are wanting to do can be done at this level. You can find a pretty theme (and then with a bit more work, learn how to change colors or upload your own logo) and even install some basic modules for interactivity such as a calendar with event signup or book reviews. None of these require any coding skills as the modules have already been created.

These skills are easily taught in a one-day workshop that will bring people who have never heard of Drupal to the content creation level. Again, we aren't talking about coding, just using pre-packaged modules developed by others.

Tier 2: Getting Geeky
If you have a special need that goes beyond the available modules and widgets for Drupal or Wordpress, then you have to either hire, find, or grow some geekiness. Coding new applications within Drupal does have a very steep learning curve. As a complex development framework, Drupal has its own set of programming methods and code conventions that differ from the basic PHP language in which it is written. People who want to create custom applications for a Drupal site have to learn the Drupal way. But isn't that the case with anything? Ever try to follow AACR2 without some serious training or mentorship?

So does this mean a casual or novice user can't do any custom web site development on Drupal? Certainly not! There are many modules available for Drupal that let you add functionality without knowing code. For example, the Nodequeue module can be used to create a list of featured books (or stories, or whatever) for display on the front page of the site. Additionally, Drupal has an incredibly powerful module called Content Construction Kit (CCK) that makes it very easy to build custom forms and other extensions to your site. CCK also integrates with another module called Views that helps you create customized displays of content. Together, they could be used to collect information on a webform (like a book review) and then display it in a variety of formats (lists of reviewed titles, genre groupings, full displays of reviews by date or reviewer). Again, these are not using code, but rather a reasonably friendly web interface.

This isn't for the most casual of users (see Tier 1 above) but this is certainly a way for someone who wants to explore and create to unlock a great deal of potential without knowing code. We have had success offering a second day of Drupal training that covers CCK and Views as a followup to an introductory day.

Tier 3: The Blybergs and the Austins
I can't write this section, as I am certainly not one of these. I know enough code to get me in trouble if I try to mess around with stuff. Yes, it is nice to have a coder on staff, but the beauty of open source (one of the main points Meredith Farkas was making) is that you can also freely benefit from the contributions of others. Like SOPAC, the Fish4Info catalog code that we created at the School Library System of Genesee Valley BOCES is made available for others to use.

Resources for getting started

  • Drupal in Libraries - Library Technology Reports May/June 2008 by Andy Austin and Christopher Harris
  • Libraries Group on - learn about new module releases for libraries and get help on issues
  • DRUPAL4LIB - a mailing list that provides active support for Drupal questions from libraries set up by Leo Klein
  • A slew of books on Drupal that provide a higher level of technical support are also available to support self-taught Drupalers