Developing an Archives Website with WordPress

On April 2, 2012, in Methods, Research, by Chris Prom

Even though the topic of this blog is practical approach to e-records, I’d like to take the next few weeks to reflect on web design and architecture issues, since the way I really began to learn something about how web technologies work was by implementing them.  And, since I am in the process of moving the University of Illinois website to a new server and a new architecture, I thought I might share a thoughts as to how anyone can get started working with server technologies to improve archival access. All of these posts will be tagged  ‘websites’ so they can be accessed here:

Today, I’d like to just lay out what I’ll be doing and why, and I’ll try to follow up with additional posts as we go along.


Basically, I’ll be setting up a new website for the University of Illinois Archives.  My library technology group has given me a virtual machine, running Red Hat Enterprise Linux version 6.2.  Apache and PHP were configured, and over the past several weeks we installed some php extensions needed for Archon and for some common web applications such as wordpress, omeka and drupal.  I can access the computer in three ways:

  • via an ssh terminal (I use PuTTy from Window and terminal from my macbook; I have sudo (i.e. ‘administrator’) access to the entire machine)
  • via the file system (for techies, this is via a samba connection; only provides access to the webfolder)
  • via secure ftp.  (In practical terms, I don’t use it since I have file system access)


The existing University of Illinois Archives website is probably the antithesis of user centered design (UCD), and it is also hard for existing staff to manage.  It grew over many years, and many graduate students and employees have developed pages and sub-pages, without a consistent design philosophy.  It is far overdue for an overhaul, as I found out recently, when teaching my SAA workshop “Analyzing and Improving Archival Websites.”  To start off the workshop, I did a simplified version of the usability testing process that Steve Krug recommends in his book, It’s Not Rocket Surgery, using the script from his downloads.  The person doing the test had some major problem using the site to do a fairly simple task, locating a photo.  During the discussion afterwards, the other participants noted the following major usability issues:

  • inconsistent navigation
  • main page was confusing, too many links
  • use of different fonts in subpages made it look like people had left the site even though they hadn’t
  • unclear what would happen when you clicked a link
  • no clear way ‘home’ from deeper parts of site.

While I knew most of these things already, it was stark to see the real usability challenges as they played out in the test.  Oh, and just to to add one point: I need to move to the new platform as soon as possible, since the existing server we run on is running out of space. So we need to make the move quickly.i.e within a few weeks or less.

So, here are the baseline requirements :

  • Implementation of a CMS to make page authoring easier for everyone;
  • Can go live w/in two weeks;
  • Consistent theme and navigational elements;
  • Migration of top level pages initially;
  • Links to existing existing content in html format;
  • Is configured initially so that  sub-sites can be developed for program areas such as Sousa Archives, Student Life and Culture, ALA Archives, etc.
  • Supports method by which other employees can move existing html content into site, with minimal training (so I don’t have to do all the work); and
  • Chosen technology allows for iterative improvement, based on monthly usability testing.
  • has ability to link to other webapps on the same domain, such as Archon.
  • Must be built on a LAMP server, to which I have access (see above).

While I am fortunate to have full admin control over the machine, all of the above would also be available through a decent webhost.

Based on my past work with WordPress,* I think it can give us all of these functions. So, in my next post, I’ll walk though the basic wordpress install.

*Basically, that consists of running this blog and running a test install of wordpress on the new machine to which I’ve been given access.

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