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Book Review: Sams Teach Yourself Drupal In 24 Hours by Jesse Feiler

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Tucked deep inside one of the appendices in the back of Sams Teach Yourself Drupal In 24 Hours is a rather revealing — and very important — statement regarding Drupal. "Yes, it is much harder to create a simple web page in Drupal. … Many people who are still objecting to using Content Management Systems (CMS), such as Drupal, end the discussion there, which is a mistake." The idea is that there is a learning curve involved with building websites using content management systems over more traditional and simplistic means; and then more so for Drupal over other content management systems. But once you get past that initial hurdle, this tool allows you to do so much more than the simplistic process ever could. So the long-term benefit of the endeavor can far outweigh the initial inconvenience of learning a new system.

And with Drupal you do have to learn a very new system. It's not the most intuitive option out there, but it is pretty much the most powerful and flexible, and can allow you to do — and automate! — some pretty impressive things. You simply need to adjust your mind to its way of thinking. Which is why a book like this becomes a very important tool. With some other systems you could probably find the information you need to get up and running on a web page, and then simply find others as occasional needs arise. With Drupal, the process can seem much less straightforward, and it's really best to have an easier reference handy, as there are a lot of things it can do, and therefore a lot of things to cover.

Sams Teach Yourself Drupal In 24 Hours by Jesse Feiler is one such offering on the subject, and there are some great and not-as-great things about it for new users. Let's take a quick look at who it targets, what it covers, and how well it presents material.

There are two primary groups that this book focuses on. The first would be site architects, and the second would be content administrators. Topics for the two sort of blend throughout the book, as there are several things that could apply to either. Obviously, there are a lot of topics geared towards simply installing and setting up a Drupal website in the first place, but many of those topics are determined by content. In fact, the flow of the book goes from installation to content set up, before it ever really delves into the look of the site. It seems to want you to let the content determine the look of the site, and not the other way around. I don't agree with that in many site instances (and if you've ever worked in the corporate world, then you're well aware that bosses and committees can care very much how a site looks, often more than some of the content that is on it), but regardless, the book structures itself to that sequence. So topics for content administrators happen early on in the book, and they can also stay more or less involved through most of the remaining chapters.

It's also important to know that given the above content focus, the site builder is almost exclusively relegated to the back end. This is not a book on theming your website. Although it does give a couple of chapters worth of advice on using template engages to customize the look of your site, it doesn't spend time on building a custom design from scratch — which frankly is a large enough topic for its own book. No, this is more about constructing how everything works together. There are initial chapters on installing Drupal on your server, as well as maneuvering around the system and installing modules to help you with later tasks. Then it moves to configuring the site for the different types of content you want to put into it. (More than just a glorified blog engine, Drupal can accommodate pretty much any kind of customized content you can think of to use.) It walks you through setting up users for the site and what they have access to, as well as how they can either help manage or contribute to the site. Content and communication are very well covered, from things displayed on the site down to messages sent to both users and administrators.

One of the things that I really appreciated about the book is Feiler's patient explanation through each step of the process. His approach is calm and clear, and he does a great job of explaining why you're doing each thing, instead of just saying "click here and then here." But he does tell you that as well, complete with generous screen shots for each step of a process. Seriously, there are pictures for pretty much everything you'll need to do. The result is something that is very easy to follow and is also a clear reference guide for jumping to topics as needed. Accompanying that is a keen focus on thinking through a site's needs first before just diving right in. He offers some good advice on mentally evaluating your goals and work flow, before you start tinkering with it. This is one of the more friendly approaches to Drupal I've seen, accessible to adventurous newbies as well as more seasoned web nerds.

With that said, there were a few things that weren't quite as exciting. The first is the author's attempt to "future-proof" his book by trying to combine techniques for both versions 6 and 7 of Drupal. As of the writing of his book, as well as the writing of this review, version 7 of Drupal is still an alpha release. No one who has need of a Teach Yourself In 24 Hours style book should be using an alpha version of that software. But yet, he wastes pages and confuses processes by trying to accommodate both, when instead a simple focus on the stable version 6 would have made more sense (and then he could release an update for the whole thing when version 7 finally supersedes it.) Secondly, the fact that the book is divided into "hours" means that equal time is given to unequal subjects. For example there is equal focus given to creating clean urls for your site, as there is to using the content construction kit (CCK) to build customised types of content. The former is a quick, albeit important, set up step, while the latter is a far richer topic that could have been expanded into more helpful and thorough examples.

The net effect of the book is still a very positive one. This is an excellent introduction for the uninitiated. It's not perfect, but it is clearly laid out and the topics explained in detail. This book will help you get Drupal up and running, and a myriad of content options humming along. It unfortunately stops at that point and will more than likely leave you with a rather dry looking site, but it does show you a few things that can be experimented with to develop a more personalized look (and again, anything more in-depth on the topic would really necessitate another book). This is a solid starting point if you are new to the world of Drupal.

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About David R Perry