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TL v59n3: Free as in Kittens: Using Open Source Software to Run Your Library Website
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 59 Number 3



Free as in Kittens: Using Open Source Software to Run Your Library Website


Wendy Cornelisen
Reference Librarian
Brentwood Public Library

Jodie Gambill
Systems Librarian
Vanderbilt University


TLA 2009 Conference Program Abstract: Content management systems (CMS) provide libraries with an easy yet powerful way to manage their websites. They allow anyone with basic tech skills to create web content quickly and easily. The Tenn-Share Web Committee, possessing a wide range of technology skills, worked together to redesign their website in Drupal, an open source content management system. 

Using open source software, which is provided at no cost to users, is a great way to make dynamic websites. We used an open source software program called Drupal to create a new website for Tenn-Share. But this free software comes with responsibilities. Just like free kittens do.

We were appointed the co-webmistresses and co-chairs of the Tenn-Share Web Committee in July of 2008 and charged with making a new website for Tenn-Share, a state-wide information resource sharing consortium. Tenn-Share provides leadership in the development of resource-sharing programs that provide access to a wide range of information resources in Tennessee, including the Tennessee Electronic Library and Volunteer Voices. It's the kind of organization that we believe in, so it was easy to say yes when they asked us to be the webmistresses.

The Tenn-Share website that we inherited was done in the downloadable version of WordPress. This WordPress site was highly customized in order to make what is a blogging tool into a website. There was not a great deal of flexibility with the design. It was difficult to upgrade and edit. It was missing certain features, including an events calendar, archiving and search capabilities. The site had plenty of content, but it was hard to find. The layout and colors were bold and heavy. The site looked dated and does not reflect the innovative spirit of Tenn-Share. 

To try to manipulate any portion of the WordPress website (i.e. adjusting the layout) would have required PHP coding and taken a lot of time and effort. If we were going to go through that time and effort, we wanted to create a website that wasn't a blog. The Tenn-Share organization had already made the decision to create a new website using an application that was designed specifically to create websites. Tenn-Share had a list of features they wanted in the new sites before we were recruited. It was obvious they had spent a great deal of time and thought on their vision.

Tenn-Share wanted a modern, professional site. Part of that included email addresses with the ending, to keep individual email addresses private and project a professional image. It is also easier to adjust as people rotate in and out of positions; board positions are for two years. They wanted a high quality site that could be easily and often updated, with minimal download time that was easy for people to use. They wanted a balance of data on the page, and they wanted it to look good.

We spent several weeks working on a mock up of the proposed redesign and researched different CMS products that could make it happen. We wanted the look and feel of the site to be significantly different from other library organizations in Tennessee, including the State Library & Archives, Tennessee Association of School Librarians and the Tennessee Library Association.

We picked a group of colors and organized the mock up of the front page into three panels. In May 2008 we submitted a mockup of the proposed redesign to the Tenn-Share Board. 


The mockup is really just a snapshot of what we wanted the site to look like. There was no depth to the page shown here; none of the links worked. This was a simple HTML coded page and was not done with Drupal. Once the Tenn-Share Board approved our mock up,  we started to work on the new site. Throughout the summer of  2008, we maintained the old site in WordPress. We also worked on the content that would be needed for the new site, including images and text for the new versions of pivotal web pages (like the TEL page and the list of board members). The majority of the development process was spent on installing Drupal, developing our theme, and making it all work. 

The creation of the new site was a collaboration with the entire Web Committee team: Penny Frere, Tenn-Share Executive Director; DeAnne Luck, Tenn-Share Database Coordinator; Julie Ivie, Tenn-Share Treasurer; and ourselves. The first rounds of discussion with the Web Committee focused on the categories on the front page. We organized them into three major categories: Membership, Resources, and Organization. This keeps the left hand column on the new site more compartmentalized and the information easier to find. The search bar, contact us, about, and home links are in the banner on every page.

The new site went live in September 2008, just before the annual Tenn-Share Datafest and Fall Conference. It included the new logo, new color scheme and categories that you see here. Other new features included the rotating images on the front page and multiple news items at the center of the page. News items can be "stuck" to the the top of the list, which is very convenient for special events. The calendar on the right lists events in chronological order. The site now has an RSS feed and is a modern, professional web site.

All of this was made possible with Drupal, a free tool that requires a person with strong technical skills to make it work. Drupal is an open source content management system that is entirely database driven. It is a series of PHP scripts interacting with a database that allows customization of a website's look and feel with themes, extended functionality with modules, and comes with a strong online community of support.

We have installed Drupal on a Sun Solaris 10 server running Apache, PHP5, and MySQL 5.0. The Tenn-Share website is hosted by the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University. We are using Drupal 6 with a custom theme and about twenty-five enabled modules. Our theme controls the stylesheet and the page layout templates. It is a custom theme, based on a subtheme of Zen, a popular starter Drupal theme. Our modules include several core optional modules that are part of Drupal, and several contributed modules that were developed by the Drupal community.

Website page editing is now done with a WYSIWYG editor. The Database Newsletter can easily be published from any computer and no longer requires FTP access to a remote server.  Information about a new issue of the newsletter is seamlessly sent to several different areas of the website to increase visibility and provide fresh content for the site.  We were also able to add wiki functionality to the site, along with an image gallery for Tenn-Share people and events.

Drupal is very flexible and powerful, but it is not always easy. Since it is open source software, there is no technical support line to call. There is assistance available through the online community of fellow Drupal users, but you have to seek out answers yourself. Overall, the Drupal CMS empowers novices and allows the less technically-able among us to get involved in maintaining a website. Advanced web developers may find Drupal's interface cumbersome; it is not as simple as going straight to the scripts or pages and editing the code directly.

If you would like to try Drupal, you will need to have several things arranged ahead of time. You will need a person who is comfortable navigating and configuring a server and running Drupal updates. Experience with PHP or SQL languages is necessary if you plan to do any advanced theming or custom module development. You will need a host for your website since Drupal does not provide hosting. Most importantly, you will need patience as you learn a new way of editing webpages and collaborate with others for assistance.

For more information related to this project, please visit There you will find our presentation slides from TLA 2009, a list of the contriuted modules we are using, and a list of great resources for helping you get started with your own Drupal site.

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