Adventures in CMS & Learning by Doing
Prior to this year I didn’t know what CMS meant, and FTP through Filezilla was simply a program that I knew about and thought was way over my head. Over the past semester I have installed Omeka, WordPress, and Mediawiki onto a development server, and uploading through Filezilla has become second nature. While the motto of CHI fellowship is learning by doing, I didn’t understand the power of this technique until recently.
A CMS is a content management system which is used to manage data within an environment online. The system aids in the creation, management, distribution and publication of data. They are the primary way that data is uploaded, integrated and used online. The CMS is installed on a server through an FTP client (File Transfer Protocol), such as Filezilla. Basically, its a method of creating dynamic websites that are based on specific models. Three CMSes that I have worked with this year include MediaWiki, WordPress and Omeka. Each has specific benefits and problems, and are designed for using and displaying specific types of data. I have used each one of these for vastly different projects, however the basic installation and ‘tech’ requirements were fairly similar.
My first CHI project was my idea to create an online community for bioarchaeologists and mortuary archaeologists where information could be shared regarding method and theory in the analysis of human remains. I wanted a space where data could be sourced from the community, that peers could review the data for accuracy, and that it could be widely accessible. I chose MediaWiki for a number a reasons, although the primary was that Wikipedia fit the type of model I wanted to use. While the project was not successfully, it was not due to the technology.
My current CHI project is creating online exhibits for the MSU Campus Archaeology program using Omeka. Omeka is a platform for creating online exhibits. You can upload your collections of items with information, share data, and link them together through narratives. It is a great way to show off collections such as those resulting from archaeology digs, archival trips, or historical information using a range of media. You can use FileZilla to upload a wide variety of plug-ins to make the site more powerful and tailor it to your needs.
Finally, I used WordPress to make the GradHacker website and blog. WordPress is one of the most popular blog platforms. It is extremely user friendly, which is why we chose to use it for a collaborative blog where a lot of authors with varying tech skills can easily use it. Like Omeka, you can upload plug-ins to expand the site and add new features.
In just one semester, I went from never having done anything with CMSes and FileZilla, to having successfully installed three. So are you ready to create your own? Here are some tips on installing a CMS:
1. Pick Wisely: Pick a CMS that fits what you want to do. Creating one can take some effort, especially if it is your first, so make sure that you are picking one that fits your project. Also, make sure you are building it for your audience
2. Get FileZilla: Make sure that you have FileMaker downloaded and can connect to your server. FileMaker is going to be your best friend with dealing with CMSes, so playing around with it and knowing the system is good.
3. Read Instructions: Install the CMS, and make sure it contains all the necessary files. Read the instructions ahead of time and follow them exactly.
4. Don’t Rush: Take your time; installing a CMS is not a fast project especially if you are just beginning so give yourself a chunk of free time to tackle this
5. Set Permissions: You can easily do this by right clicking on the FileZilla folder and clicking folder options, and it is the most common reason why your install doesn’t work. Make sure that you set permissions to writable for the user (not the entire world); this is easy and can quickly be done to all files through FileMaker
6: Ask for Help: Don’t be afraid to ask for help; there were a number of times that I hit brick walls especially with installing Omeka. Instead of blaming it on a lack of personal tech skills I asked for help on the Omeka Forums, DH Answers and then from the MATRIX staff- finding out that the problem was simply a notorious problem whose appearance was not due to personal incompetence but rather a common system problem
The reason that my personal struggle through these three CMSes was so important and so powerful is that I seem to have leveled up in my personal confidence towards technology. Technical languages are no longer elite knowledge, but rather something I just need to play with a bit before I begin to understand. Learning by doing opens up the realm of possibilities, and why it may sound corny, I feel like I could learn anything! This past weekend I went to a conference session on an introduction to HTML5 and CSS3. The session requirements included a prior knowledge of hand-coding HTML and CSS, and was slated as being an intermediate difficulty. I was shocked at how well I was able to keep up with the session, and then use the skills I learned to actually apply the knowledge to my own site.
The bottom line: technology is not elite knowledge, we just need to embrace learning through doing. Your parents told you not to play with your food, but they never told you not to play with technology… so go ahead, and have fun!
[Image by Netta and used under Creative Commons license]