Which FOSS Web Content Management System?

In July Amy asked this question on the SPLAT! Facebook page:

“What’s the best open source platform (content management system) for managing web content?”

At the time I slipped into reference desk mode and asked for clarification:

“The best open source platform for managing web content is going to depend on what you want your website to do. Tell us more about the goals of your website.”

Nothing else ever came out of that exchange so I thought I’d take a few minutes tonight to go over the 3 major Open Source web content management systems.

1. WordPress – The first thing you need to know about WordPress is that there are two things called WordPres: the WordPress blogging site at wordpress.com where anyone who wants can create a WordPress blog; and wordpress.org which hosts the WordPress content management system. If you’re looking for a CMS, then, you’re going to want to go to wordpress.org.

The advantage of WordPress is that it’s easy. It’s easy to install, it’s easy to update, it’s easy to change themes – it’s all easy. WordPress has tons of themes and plugins, and that’s what makes it easy. If you want to change the look of your site, all you have to do is change the theme and there are over 2500 free themes to choose from on the WordPress community’s website. And if you know how to edit CSS, you can modify an existing theme or just create your own. Likewise, if you want to add an events calendar – get a calendar plugin. Want to add a contact form – get a form plugin. Want to add Facebook and Twitter widgets – plugin.

The WordPress software community is huge and incredibly robust. A lot of people are out there in the world writing new code to make WordPress work. The software is upgraded regularly and there is a lot of community support. WordPress averages 2 major software updates per year. The current version, 4.0, was released in September 2014.

The disadvantage of WordPress is that WordPress was built as a blogging platform, and without a lot of modification to your themes, you’re going to end up with a site that looks like a blog. That’s not to say that you can’t use WordPress and come up with a site that doesn’t look like a blog, just that, unless you want your site to look like a blog, it’s going to take some work (see my “free like a kitten” comment at the end of the post).

Idaho Libraries using WordPress:

I couldn’t find any Idaho libraries using WordPress as their CMS!

2. Drupal – A lot of people in Idaho are already familiar with Drupal because the ICFL e-Branch in a Box program uses Drupal.

The advantage of Drupal is that it’s very flexible. You can use Drupal to create a simple 1 page website or you can use Drupal to create a website for the US Government. The Whitehouse, for example – http://www.whitehouse.gov/. Drupal has a lot to offer for libraries that want to create a website that does just about anything you can think of. If you want basic web pages, Drupal can do that. If you want a blog on your site, Drupal can do that. If you want 3 or 4 different blogs, Drupal can do that too. Drupal is incredibly flexible. Currently there are over 1000 themes available on the community website, so finding a good look for your site should not be too hard – you can probably find a theme that will work – or you can find something really close and then have a staff member who knows some CSS and HTML edit the theme to do what you want.

Drupal has an active community but it’s nowhere near as large or as active as WordPress. Drupal had regular updates from 2001 to 2008 but went through its last major release in 2011. Drupal 8 is supposed to be in the works, but there is no release date for that version.

The disadvantage of Drupal is that it’s hard to learn and hard to customize. Almost every review that I read of Drupal uses the phrase “steep learning curve.” And, possibly, the best example of that steep learning curve can be found when you look at Idaho libraries that are already using Drupal. Many of the Idaho libraries using Drupal haven’t done much to update the look of their sites. The people I know at some of those libraries will be the first ones to say that they haven’t updated the look of their sites because they can’t devote the time to learning how to use Drupal because Drupal is really difficult.

Idaho Libraries using Drupal:






(There are tons of Idaho libraries using Drupal – any library with a website ending in “lili.org” is using Drupal – see http://libraries.idaho.gov/page/participating-sites for more information.)

3. Joomla

Like Drupal, Joomla has the advantage of being very flexible. I’ve been playing around with it a little bit myself and what I’m finding is that it is at least as flexible as Drupal. There are also lots of “themes” for Joomla – which are called “Templates” in Joomla-speak. Likewise Joomla has lots of “Plugins” wich are called “Extensions” in Joomla-speak.

Also like Drupal, Joomla has an active community – though not as large as the WordPress community. Joomla is also averaging 2 major updates per year which is similar to WordPress.

The big disadvantage I’m finding with Joomla is that the best looking templates and the most useful extensions cost money. The learning curve with Joomla is steeper than WordPress but nowhere near as steep as Drupal. And the Joomla community doesn’t host any templates. There are plenty of templates available – both free and proprietary – but you have to leave the Joomla community’s website to find them. Like with Drupal and WordPress, it is possible to create themes and modify existing themes – which requires knowledge of CSS and HTML. But with Joomla, you can get an extension to help you edit templates. As a matter of fact, there are several template editing software packages – but they all cost money.

Idaho Libraries using Joomla:



So, in the end, which CMS is best is really is going to depend on what your library wants to do with its website and whether or not you have a staff member with the knowledge, skills, experience, and time to learn how to get the most out of your website. Free and Open Source Software is great. I drank the Open Source Kool-Aid a long time ago. I can’t think of anything more librarian-ish than FOSS. The drawback is that Free and Open Source Software is free like a kitten. You don’t have to pay for the privilege of using the software – like you would with Dream Weaver or Microsoft Office or a proprietary ILS like Voyager or Horizon – but FOSS doesn’t come with an 800 number you can call when the software doesn’t do what you expect it to do. Open Source Software takes courage and a willingness to learn. You have to be brave enough to dive in and break your system. And believe me nothing will teach you about your Open Source Software system faster than trying to fix it after you’ve broken it yourself.


Infographic comparing WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.

Comparison chart with a summary at the end.

This article is a few years old but has a lot to say that is still relevant.

Focuses on Joomla vs Drupal.