Transitions: on using Drupal in the humanities

In this post I want to discuss the use of Drupal and Drupal distributions in academia, especially the humanities, where Drupal has become an increasingly popular CMS in recent years.

This has not always been the case. Traditionally, Wordpress has been a popular choice among humanists, especially for personal websites/blogs, and in humanities institutes in general, particularly for conference and project websites (see also my post on building a blog with Drupal here). Given its relatively easy learning curve, out-of-the-box functionality and general ease of use this is an understandable choice, if also a self-perpetuating one: given the scarce availability of resources in many humanities institutes, previous experience with a particular system is often a key criterion, even when other systems might suit a project's functional demands better. 

For several interconnected reasons, this situation now seems to change. As the digital humanities advance, scholars are acquiring more technical skills that allow them to turn to more powerful, versatile and flexible systems like Drupal with which highly complex websites can be built. At the same time universities and/or institutes with IT departments start to choose available open source alternatives over in-house development or expensive commercial solutions. The availability of several Drupal distributions that were either specifically developed for use in academic environments, or are well-suited for the purpose, is an important reason for this shift. Projects which used to require scarce programming resources can now be accomplished by digital humanists using systems like Drupal, thus freeing up costly IT resources. More than replacing Wordpress as the CMS of choice, Drupal thus also replaces the need for custom-built websites and thus lowers the cost of realising web-based projects.

Though Drupal's reputation as a difficult CMS is often exaggerated it is certainly true that it takes more effort to master than Wordpress. This is precisely the raison d'être of the new Drupal for Humanists website, created by Quinn Dombrowski and Elijah Meeks. And fortunately plenty of other resources are available too that help smoothen the path towards Un(b)locking the Drupal Learning Curve.

Here is a list of (mostly) Drupal distros that humanists should be aware of:

  • Open Academy: a Drupal distribution "that lets university departments run fully functional, polished websites straight out of the box" and includes "features for handling courses, research publications and presentations, departmental news, faculty profiles, events and more". 
  • Openscholar: a Drupal-based "open source web site building and content management tool intended for academic scholars. It enables the creation and management of multiple web sites upon a single Drupal installation". OpenScholar is used at Harvard University  for personal academic sites and academic project sites. There is also an OpenScholar group on drupal.org.
  • Open Atrium: a Drupal-based "intranet in a box with: a blog, a wiki, a calendar, a to do list, a shoutbox, and a dashboard to manage it all". See this Chronicle article about Using Open Atrium to Manage Collaborative Academic Projects
  • Conference Organizing Distribution: a Drupal distro that "has several immediate, out-of-the-box benefits such as Session tools, Sponsors management, and Conference Registration which make it the obvious choice for anyone running a conference, bar camp, or small event site".
  • Drupal Commons: a Drupal distribution "for building either internal or external communities. It provides a complete social business software solution for organizations". See for an academic example the Iter Community. Gateway to the Middle Ages and Renaissance
  • Buddypress: a plugin for Wordpress to build online communities; the best-known example of its use in academia is the CUNY Academic Commons (City University New York), whose developers have also contributed several plugins that are of specific use to academics.1 
 
I have included Buddypress because it is the Wordpress equivalent of Drupal Commons and both systems are intended to build online communities. It is one of the rare examples I know of where both Wordpress and Drupal offer a dedicated solution to create a similar type of website. In the current project I am working on we tested and compared both systems and chose Drupal Commons, mainly because we need to include additional functionality that is fairly easy to incorporate using Drupal and much more complicated, if not impossible, to achieve using Wordpress (I might write a future post adressing our choice and the issues at stake). In general, more distros are built upon Drupal than Wordpress, no doubt because it is so much more versatile and complex (I stand corrected though and any examples are welcome in the comments). 
 
Apart from dedicated distros many complex websites are of course custom built with Drupal. As an example, here are a number of Drupal-based websites that have been launched by Dutch humanities institutes in the past two years:
 
To conclude here are some additional resources for those interested in exploring the use of Drupal in academia:

 Please do not hesitate to add any additional information in the comments!

 

  • 1. Gold, Matthew, and George Otte, 'The CUNY Academic Commons: Fostering Faculty Use of the Social Web', On the Horizon 19, no. 1 (2011). See here