A look at Using Drupal

Using Drupal (cover) One of my goals for 2012 is to get a better handle on Drupal, a web-based content management and publishing system. While I have some knowledge of Drupal, to say that it’s basic is being kind – it’s somewhere between basic and rudimentary. And as is my custom when I try to learn something new I turn to one or more books. That’s often because I’m on a tight budget or I don’t have time to take a course (assuming there’s a course for the subject in which I’m interested on offer).

One book that’s come in front of my eyes is Using Drupal (second edition). If you’re interested in learning how to use Drupal, and doing it in a practical way, then you’ll definitely want to take a look at this book.

Getting going

The book isn’t an end-to-end tutorial. At least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s organized as a series of recipes. And after kicking off with a history or web publishing and an explanation of key concept in Drupal – like modules, nodes, and entities and fields – and a look at the ways in which you can organize your content, Using Drupal gets down to business. More on this in a moment.

Of course, to complete the exercises you’ll need Drupal installed somewhere. But most web hosting companies make installing it easy using automated tools like Fantastico and SimpleScripts. There’s even an appendix that explains how to install and update Drupal.

Building on what you’re learning

That’s where the recipes I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago come in. Each chapter is a recipe, that takes you from setting up a simple site to building on it with various modules and features. The chapters don’t just tell you what the building blocks are and what they can do. They also offer you a number of opportunities to get your hands dirty by putting what you’ve been reading into practice.

Like what? Let’s start with chapter 2. You get to not only work with a Drupal site’s administrative and security settings, but also get to create a simple page, install modules, and brand the site you’re working on.

Each recipe helps you build the essential skills that you need to become proficient with Drupal. Everything that you learn about modules (code that you drop into Drupal to make it do all sorts of weird and wonderful things) and entities and fields (for defining and sharing data across the system) you’ll use when you start to tackle later chapters in the book.

Practical as well as theoretical

For the most part, Using Drupal balances the practical and the theoretical quite nicely. You’re introduced to the concepts behind elements of the system – like the modules, and entities and fields that I mentioned a moment ago – but you’re not left scratching your head wondering how to put that knowledge into practice. I’ll say it again: each chapter has extensive hands-on sections that let you try things out. Those sections show you that these things actually work, and give you the confidence to experiment on your own

The recipes are definitely practical. You’re using Drupal to build sites or add features that you’d probably add to sites on the real web. Like what? Like creating a job board, effectively adding multimedia to a site, managing events and creating a project review site. Chapter 7, on managing a publishing workflow, intrigued me the most. Maybe I won’t create that online magazine, but I might one day move one of my blogs to Drupal or create a newsletter. And the information in chapter 7 will definitely come in handy.

Best of all, the recipes are flexible enough that can adapt them to different tasks and different modules.

On the other hand …

Learning Drupal does get a bit techie at times. I know there were a few passages that I couldn’t get my head around, like:

New in Drupal 7 is the concept of entities, an additional layer of abstraction above nodes that spans multiple system components, including comments, users, and files.

I’m not the most technically-skilled person around, but I’m not a complete techno illiterate. I had to read passages like that a few times in order to fully understand them. When I couldn’t, I turned to the web for help.

Every so often, the book seemed to make a jump that I couldn’t follow. It wasn’t quite the same as when I was trying to learn Japanese and was completely lost when I moved from my beginner’s textbook to the next one in the series but every so often I felt that same, I’m lost!!! feeling. Luckily, that didn’t last too long. The challenge made me work a bit harder.

Final thoughts

While Using Drupal hasn’t made me an expert, or anything resembling one, it’s put me on a path to becoming more competent with Drupal and gaining more confidence in my abilities to use it. I don’t expect to become an expert, but after reading and using this book I’ve gone beyond being a mere dabbler.

Using Drupal isn’t the only book that I’ll be using on that path towards gaining more competence and confidence. But I can see it being the book that I turn back to both in the present and the future.

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