Can library techies rock Drupal?

By Kate Sheehan |

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.