In summer/fall 2012, I posted a series regarding the implementation of WordPress as an content management system. Time prevented me from describing how we decided to configure WordPress for use in the University of Illinois Archives. In my next two posts, I’d like to rectify that, first by describing our basic implementation, then by noting (in the second post) some WordPress configuration steps that proved particularly handy.It’s an opportune time to do this because our Library is engaged in a project to examine options for a new CMS, and WordPress is one option.
When we went live with the main University Archives site in August 2012, one goal was to manage related sites (the American Library Association Archives, the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, and the Student Life and Culture Archives) in one technology, but to allow a certain amount of local flexiblity in the implemenation. Doing this, I felt, would minimize development and maintenance costs while making it easer for staff to add and edit content. We had a strong desire to avoid staff training sessions and sought to help our many web writers and editors become self sufficient, without letting them wander too far afield from an overall design aesthetic (even if my own design sense was horrible, managing everything in one system would make it easier to apply a better design at a later date).
I began by setting up a WordPress multisite installation and by selecting the thematic theme framework. In retrospect, these decisions have proven to be good ones, allowing us to achieve the goals described above
Child Theme Development
Thematic is theme framework, and is not suitable for those who don’t like editing CSS or delving into code (i.e. for people who want to set colors and do extensive styling in the admin interface. That said, its layout and div organization are easy to understand, and it is well documented. It includes a particularly strong set of widget areas, so that is a huge plus. It is developer friendly since it is easy to do site customizations in the child theme, without affecting the parent Thematic style or the WordPress core.
Its best feature: You can spin off child themes, while reusing the same content blocks and staying in sync with WordPress best practices. Even those with limited CSS and/or php skills can quickly develop attractive designs simply by editing the styles and including a few hooks to load images (in the functions file). In addition to me, two staff members (Denise Rayman and Angela Jordan) have done this for the ALA Archives and SLC Archives.
Another plus: The Automattic “Theme division” developed and supports Thematic, which means that it benefits from close alignment with WP’s core developer group. Our site has never broken on upgrade when using my thematic child themes; at most we have done a few minutes of work to correct minor problems.
In the end, The decision to use Thematic required more upfront work, but it forced me to about theme development and to begin grappling with the WordPress API (e.g. hooks and filters), while setting in place a method for other staff to develop spin off sites. More on that in my next post.
Once WordPress multisite was running, we spent time selecting and installing plug-ins that could be used on the main site and that would help us achieve desired effects. The following proved to be particularly valuable and have proven to have good forward compatibility (i.e. not breaking the site when we upgraded WordPress):
- WPTouch Mobile
- WP Table Reloaded (adds table editor)
- wp-jquery Lightbox (image modal windows)
- WordPress SEO
- Simple Section Navigation Widget (builds local navigation menus from page order)
- Search and Replace (admin tool for bulk updating paths, etc.)
- List Pages Shortcode
- Jetpack by WordPress.com
- Metaslider (image carousel)
- Ensemble Video Shortcodes (allows embedding AV access copies in campus streaming service)
- Google Analytics by Yoast
- Formidible (form builder)
- CMS Page Order (drag and drop menu for arranging overall site structure)
- Disqus Comment System
Again, I’ll write more about how we are using these, in my next post.