Drupal Workshop at Edinburgh University Digital Day of Ideas

On May 18th Edinburgh University held its fifth annual Digital Day of Ideas, organised by Anouk Lang, Lecturer in Digital Humanities in the University’s department of English Literature.For the second year in a row I gave a workshop on “Beginning Drupal“. The slides, handouts, and file downloads for the workshop are linked to at the end of this post, and should be a useful resource if you want to get started with Drupal.

Whenever I give this workshop I try to be clear about what it’s designed to do — and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s designed not to do. It doesn’t cover how to add content to a Drupal site, for example, for the simple reason that how you do this can vary massively depending on which Drupal site you’re working on. It also doesn’t cover how to make specific changes to the look and feel of your site, and you won’t “know Drupal” by the end of the workshop: getting really fluent with Drupal can take months or even years of work, and arguably Drupal is so complex that no-one really understands all of it — instead, Drupal developers tend to specialise relatively early on in their careers.

But at the end of the session participants will have built a fully functioning Drupal website from scratch, irrespective of the amount of web development experience they’ve started with. To get to this point, they’ll have learned how to:

  • Set up a local web development environment using XAMPP;
  • Download the core Drupal files, and get Drupal configured and running on a server;
  • Add content to their Drupal site;
  • Download and install a “theme”, a set of files that determines the look and feel of a Drupal site;
  • Download and install a “module”, which adds new functionality to a Drupal site;
  • Build and configure new types of content that can be posted to the site;
  • Build and configure a new “view”; a set of rules that determines which content appears where on the site.

While these skills are not sufficient to be able to build sites that require a toolkit with the flexibility — and consequential complexity — of Drupal (as I stress in the workshop, if you need to build a blog or blog-like project, you’d be better off seeing if Squarespace or WordPress will do what you need before trying Drupal), pretty much all of these skills are necessary for pretty much every Drupal project. I’d argue, moreover, that many projects that require a framework that has Drupal’s complexity will be sufficiently complex in and of themselves to be beyond the skillset we can reasonably expect from someone in the humanities community. That is not to say that people in the humanities are in some sense incapable of picking up the necessary skills (despite what we are perpetually drip-fed by a STEM-obsessed academy and broader culture, we definitely have the ability to become perfectly competent in more utilitarian subjects). People who are working in the humanities would employ someone to build their web project for the same reason that they would employ someone to do any other job: mastering the required skills takes a hell of a long time.

Employing someone to complete your web project and then managing them during that process requires its own set of skills, however, and it’s these skills that I’d expect to be the most useful takeaway for the majority of people who take the workshop. Knowing a bit of technical jargon and the fundamental ways in which Drupal works can be invaluable when you are trying to explain your ideas to a web developer.