My Review of “Drupal: Creating Blogs, Forums, Portals and Community Websites” by David Mercer

Recently, a friend that I commonly sub-contract with purchased a few copies of Drupal: Creating Blogs, Forums, Portals and Community Websites by David Mercer, and he sent one to me. Although I initially thought that I wouldn’t get much out of this book–as its intended audience is non-technical–I read it. It was a free gift after all. And, I was pleasantly surprised by how informative I found it.

Over the past few years, my friend and I have co-created a few simple content managed Web sites using XOOPS, as we both appreciated its bare-bones framework and the ease with which it could be customized. But during that time, both Joomla and Drupal have been getting a lot of attention and seeming mindshare in the PHP community, so we started exploring these options to try to insure our customers’ sites against the future.

A superficial look at Joomla led us to believe that its content management interface was needlessly complicated for the types of sites we had in mind, and for the customers who would be using it. End user ease-of-use was our most important consideration, followed by design and development flexibility. In this regard, Drupal looked to us like it was a more elaborate implementation of the things we liked about XOOPS.

So, we both planned to investigate Drupal further in the near future. I had my eye on Pro Drupal Development, but my friend is a designer and David Mercer’s book looked more appropriate for him, so he decided to buy copies for both of us. Although I was expecting a book that would be too non-technical for my needs, I was pleasantly surprised when I began reading it. Although I did skip some major areas of the book, the bulk of the book explores how to configure Drupal sites and author various types of content, giving you a very detailed walkthrough of the administrative interface in the process. As someone who is in the stage of evaluating Drupal’s capabilities, this walkthrough helped orient me to Drupal’s approach to creating dynamic sites and gave me a clear picture of what can be done with Drupal out of the box.

Now, if I had to pay for this book, would I think this information was worth the price? Well, OK, probably not, I would probably just go directly to Pro Drupal Development which appears to go more deeply into the guts of Drupal, and just dive into using it.

But my needs may not be your needs, and overall, I have to say that David Mercer’s book is an excellent introduction to Drupal for many people. He starts at the beginning, downloading, installing and quickly getting a basic site up and running, gently walks you through all the options in the administrative interface, tells you how to modify the look and feel of the site through Drupal’s themes and ends with instructions for common maintenance tasks, and tips for deploying the site.

Although I don’t think that most people with absolutely no technical background would be able to make it through installing Drupal using this book, David comes as close as I think you can to that goal. But, if you are a graphic designer looking for the easiest way to create a Web site on your own, this book is ideal. As a graphic designer, you must have some rudimentary technical knowledge to do your job, and I think that that level of knowledge is enough to be able to follow this book’s simple instructions.

But David does more than just allow you to easily install and use Drupal. Throughout the book, he peppers his descriptions of how to use various parts of Drupal with advice and descriptions of best practices that Web developers have learned over the years that would not be obvious to a non-technical user. He doesn’t get deeply into theory here, he just provides appropriate insights to keep users from going astray, such as when he covers roles and permissions, and he instructs the reader to only give users as much access as they need and nothing more.

These bits of advice as well as his later chapters that for example, describe how to use the mysqldump utility to regularly backup your Drupal database, provide a non-technical user with a very comprehensive picture of how to best configure and deploy Drupal. Basically, David’s book provides knowledge that would take months, perhaps years, for someone to learn on their own through hard experience alone. For its intended audience, David’s book is worth its weight in gold.

The only gripe I have against the book is that in his discussions of taxononomies and thesauri, David’s definitions and descriptions of these concepts are just plain wrong. I can’t judge him too harshly, however, when I remember who he is writing for. In an attempt to simplify concepts for the uninitiated, we often find ourselves saying things that aren’t quite right for the sake of making them understandable.

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