10 great things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system

(This is a companion piece to another post, 10 terrible things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system)

Now that I’ve spent some time on a team administering WordPress on a large scale, I can point to ten things I really like about using this CMS in our environment:

1. Plugins

WordPress has a mind-bogglingly large repository of plugins available. If there’s a feature you wish WordPress had, 99.99% of the time you can find a plugin to do it.

2. Responsive Themes

Do yourself a favor and pick a responsive theme. It’ll reorganize your pages to display in a much more usable fashion on mobile devices and other unforeseen oddball screen sizes.

3. Granular User Permissions

WordPress’ built-in user role management functions leave a little bit to be desired, but (see above) there’s a plugin for that! Press Permit took a bit of time to figure out, but now lets us make sure users only have access to the pages they need to maintain. This cuts down on accidental edits or deletions, and provides a less cluttered interface to our staff.

4. Formidable Plugin to Manage Forms

Formidable is an amazingly flexible plugin for adding forms to your site. It’s got power on the back end too: We use hidden fields to turn it into a rudimentary ticketing system for website support requests.

5. Extensibility

WordPress’ custom types make it possible to add your own arbitrary data types to the system. Through types we were able to add our study spaces as items in WordPress.

6. Shortcodes

Shortcodes should be the #1 feature marketed by WordPress! They’re simply reusable blocks of text. For example, we have building policies that are consistent across branches. Instead of having a half dozen copies of that text to maintain on the site, we just have to update it once. The shortcode then pushes the content automatically to each required page. Shordcodes: Putting the Content Management back in CMS.

7. Sort pages by date last modified

The Sort by Last Modified plugin does one simple thing, and does it well. With it installed, you can sort all your pages by the date they were last updated. I can see at a glance if something has gone ages without an update. I don’t know why this feature isn’t included in WordPress, but at least it’s easy to add!

8. Revisions

Made a mistake? WordPress keeps all the old versions of your page, and it’s easy to roll back to any of them. Just like Wikipedia. You might need to enable Revisions under your Screen Options section to see them, but WordPress keeps track of your changes all along automatically.

9. Checking Broken Links

The broken link checker plugin provides simple reports pointing out broken links on your site. Getting data like this on our pre-CMS site was a nightmare, and I still can’t believe it’s so easy now.

10. Avoid Conflicting Page-Edits

If you try to edit a page while someone else is working on it, WordPress makes sure you know that’s the case. No more overwriting simultaneous edits!

So that’s the good stuff! Come back tomorrow for another post, this time covering pieces of WordPress that drive me insane.

(This is a companion piece to another post, 10 terrible things about using WordPress as a large scale content management system)

Web services I use, 2012 edition

Since I last posted this list, a few things have changed. First, here’s the things I used last year but don’t anymore:

For two weeks in October, Simplenote’s syncing service stopped working entirely. None of my notes propogated across devices, making it entirely useless to me. Even worse, their support was entirely silent on the issue. Syncing eventually returned, but I’m sufficiently spooked and don’t trust the service anymore. I spent some time exporting my notes, and moved on to greener pastures.

Spool’s killer feature was the ability to cache youtube videos for offline viewing. That put it above all other text-saving services for me. But in February, Youtube asked Spool to disable that feature. Then Spool shut down entirely in July. But by that time I’d already moved to another service.

Last year I questioned Flickr’s future usefulness for me. And when it came time for me to renew my Pro account in March, I let it lapse for the first time since 2005. It hurt my soul a little bit to do that, but the community I once valued so much on Flickr is dead silent now.

Other things have stayed the same. I still use Pinboard, Tripit, Dropbox, ifttt and Google Reader extensively. I still don’t really like Google Reader now that the social features are gone, but I haven’t found a better replacement yet either. Dropbox added an automatic photo upload feature in their mobile app that makes me feel much more secure about my phone’s photos. Ifttt was forced to remove some of their twitter-related features, but it’s still a ton of fun to play with.

Lastly, there’s a few new tools I’ve picked up:

This has entirely replaced Simplenote for me. While I sometimes still miss Simplenote’s, well, simplicity, Evernote is undeniably powerful. I splurged on a one year pro subscription and haven’t looked back. It’s become a crucial part of my day to day workflow, keeping all my project notes and brainstorming in one place.

Formerly known as ReadItLater, the now better-named Pocket is my text time-shifter of choice. Whenever I find an interesting article during the day I add it to my Pocket queue for later reading. I load up the Android app when I’ve got time and catch up. My queue is never-ending, but I get to a bunch more articles this way than I would have otherwise.

I’m of two minds here. Picasa’s desktop version is an amazing photo manager & organizer, but I just can’t make their online photo sharing component work for me. It’s confusing, buggy, and has even less of a community than Flickr. With a baby on the way, I need to find a good way to share photos with distant family. Picasa isn’t it, and I still don’t know what service I’ll end up using for it. But back to the positive: Thanks to the desktop version of Picasa my photos are better organized than ever before.

While I don’t technically use Feedly as a service of it’s own, the Feedly Android app has become the way I most frequently access Google Reader. It has a wonderful gesture-based interface that makes it easy to quickly flip through articles and mark them as read.

Defining what I do: What makes a technology emerging or disruptive?

Up the Hatch!

“I’m the Emerging Technologies Librarian at UNC.”

“So what does that mean?”

Every time I meet someone new at work, that’s how the conversation goes.

My response usually consists of arm flailing and a disjointed summary of my duties. I’m working on that. But I think people mostly don’t know what my job defines as an “emerging technology”.

To be honest, as the years go by I’m less a fan of that term. “Emerging” is too broad. Any new technology emerges, just by virtue of being new. Solar power is an emerging technology, and even something as simple as seatbelts once was too. I can’t keep an eye on everything. Instead, I find myself looking at a new technology and asking: Is it disruptive to libraries? “Disruptive” does a better job of defining what I deal with on a day to day basis. The technologies I look at tend to be new and emerging, but as they emerge they also disrupt that context and the way we do things.

I tend to define things by removing what they’re aren’t, plus there’s a lot more tech that doesn’t disrupt libraries than that which does. Xbox Kinect is interesting and definitely emerging, but I don’t see a lot of immediate disruption coming from it in my academic library corner of the world. I also don’t see a lot of relevance for 3D printers in the core parts of my particular work environment, but they’re definitely emerging as technology. As sci-fi author Neal Stephenson recently noted in Arc 1.3, “…[3D printing] isn’t a disruptive idea on its own. It becomes disruptive when people find their own uses for it.”  It’s when an actual or likely use impacts libraries that I pay more attention.

So now I have to define what makes a technology disruptive for my purposes. My definition is a bit hard to nail down, but I think I’ve settled on something close to “a technology that could change the way academic libraries deliver services and information.”

Based on that, eBooks are an obvious disruptive technology in libraries. And in a general sense the web continues to disrupt everything in our core mission.

Now I’ve established criteria for which disruptive technologies I deal with in my job. But how do I spot disruptive technologies for evaluation in the first place? Disruptive technology arrives in two different flavors. The first kind does something new and interesting well, but misses a basic feature of an existing technology. The second kind creates an entirely new niche for itself, carving out existence without an obvious analogue anywhere else.


Google Voice is a prime example of the first kind of disruptive tech. It adds a number of very useful features to our venerable old phone numbers, but also doesn’t support MMS messaging or certain types of SMS shortcodes at all. I don’t use either of those features on my phone often, but it’s enough that I’d miss them if I moved over to Google Voice.

Later, the disruptive tech might fill in those gaps and be more fully emerged as a replacement. But I have real trouble coming up with examples of tech that successfully made this transition. Google Voice is still plugging right along, but shows no signs of fixing my dealbreakers. Other examples have been less fortunate; their feature gaps were important enough that they eventually faded away. Netbooks took off on their amazing portability and battery life, but their tiny keyboards and often limited processing power meant they peaked early and are now fading. Google Wave tried to reinvent email with a treasure trove of added features, but had an impenetrable UI and lacked a clear use case. It lasted 15 months. Uber’s car service is heavily disrupting the taxi industry, but is so far outside the box that it’s meeting significant legal pushback and sabotage there. Look at 3D printers again: they provide all kinds of disruptive challenges to traditional manufacturing. But the technology is also extremely fiddly and requires a lot of customization, expertise and constant adjustment to use. It’s future will depend on whether the printers can overcome those gaps and more fully emerge into everyday use.

In the academic library world, this first type of disruptive technology describes ebooks perfectly. They add new functionality to the traditional task of consuming text, but thanks to DRM and licensing we can’t share them as easily and have questions about long-term viability of the titles in our collection. Ebook readers fit too, for similar reasons. I’m obviously keeping a close eye on them and am involved with a number of ebook-related projects and programs on campus. The recent trend of massively online courses like Udacity and Coursera qualifies as this type of disruption as well, though for higher ed in general. Instant messaging continues to disrupt the way we provide service at the reference desk.  So those are three areas I’m focusing on lately.


Not all emerging technologies fit that first model. Instead of changing something we already have, the disruption a technology creates may carve out a whole new space for itself. The iPad is the obvious example here; Apple pretty much created the modern tablet market. But despite being a new market, tablets still disrupt laptops, ebook readers and smartphones. Cell phones in a general sense fit this second model of disruption too, incidentally. I have a harder time coming up with more examples here, especially ones relevant to academic libraries. Most of our disruptions come from modifications to existing technologies or systems, and very few spring forth into an entirely new niche. Still, iPads and other tablets have huge implications for desktop computing facilities in my library and on my campus. Even if the disruption isn’t obvious, it’s still important to recognize the difference in how it comes about. Libraries need to keep an eye on changes to both current niches and the emergence of entirely new ones.


No matter which type of disruption a technology fits, all of them go through early, middle and late phases of disruption. Early on, they’re pretty experimental with notable feature gaps. Google Wallet and their system of NFC payments fits the early bill right now. I think Google Voice seems to be stuck in this early phase too, and shows no indication of advancing beyond it. Before the release of the Kindle I’d also have put ebooks at this point. They were a niche interest at best.

By the middle phase, a technology has a foothold in the general public – not just among early adopters. In April we learned that 21% of American adults read an ebook last year, and 45% now own a smartphone. They’re not anywhere near universal adoption yet, but it’s significant and trending upward.

Eventually some of these technologies close in on finishing their disruption. By that point they’re into the late phase. I classify MP3s as a late phase disruption, for example. In many demographics they’ve completely replaced CDs, the technology they disrupted. Of course CDs, vinyl, and other music distribution methods do still exist. Not everyone has the technical literacy to make the change in their personal music collection, though an increasing majority do.

After the final stage of disruption, that ’emerged’ term pops up again. Emerging technologies go through phases of disruption, but ultimately must become fully emerged or at some point fade away. Blogs disrupted traditional web publishing (if there can be said to be such a thing), but are now a fact of online life. They’re emerged. Digital cameras and (non-smartphone) cell phones are emerged too.


We’ve come back around to dealing with emerging technologies. But on a day to day basis, I’m more concerned with following their progress through phases of disruption. If we can figure out which technologies with potential implications for libraries will make it through the phases, we can get ahead of the game. Or at least keep pace and stop anything from blowing up in our faces.

And that’s why I flail my arms when someone asks me what my job title means: I haven’t found a way to distill all this into a soundbyte yet. But as a collective institution, libraries are ripe for disruption. In my job I try to keep a practical focus on the horizon and do my part to keep us a bit ahead of the curve.

Interesting things I’ve read this week – 10/19/12

Random House Says Libraries Own Their Ebooks

(Library Journal) I’m entirely surprised to read this headline and story, but Random House now flat out says that libraries own ebooks that they’ve bought from them.  That may seem like an obvious statement, but up till now libraries have only been able to license, not own, ebooks from the big 6 fiction publishers.  Of course, libraries don’t buy ebooks directly from publishers like Random House.  We’re still at the mercy of licenses we sign with vendors like Overdrive – and those licenses very clearly deny ownership.  Now it’ll be an issue of getting vendor licenses to line up with what Random House says here.  Plus trying to get the other big publishers to commit to the same thing, of course.  Those are still big hurdles, but at least it’s progress.

How We Lost the Future (Final Bullet)

In some ways I see this as a counterpoint to Louis CK’s “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy” bit.  Have we lost the capability to even think about and imagine what the future might be?  “To say ‘we live in the future’ is an expression of a predestination fantasy. This way of thinking is cheating us out of the exciting reality of growing and achieving a future.”

How Not to Talk to Your Kids (New York Magazine)

This is a bit old (2007), but as an expecting parent I find myself paying a lot more attention to issues surrounding child-rearing.  I’m trying to avoid drowning myself in advice & ‘systems’ of child-rearing, but this piece dealing with how styles of praise have huge effects makes a lot of sense to me.

Can Boxee reinvent cable with the help of a TV antenna? (The Verge)

At home we use an antenna to watch live TV, and a Hulu subscription to watch things later.  For the most part I’m really happy with the setup, but I do still miss having the ability to pause live TV.  Current solutions for that issue are largely homegrown and a pain to set up & maintain.  The new Boxee TV has a good chance to change that, though the thought of another $15/month subscription does give me pause.

The forgotten Kindle

I don’t think there’s any consumer product line I’m more conflicted about than the Kindle. As a consumer, my Kindle Touch makes me very happy. At the same time, the Kindle Fire I’ve used made me very sad. (And as a librarian, well that’s another story entirely.)

But one thing’s for sure, the whole family of devices continues to be a big hit. Today’s announcement of the expansion of the Fire line to three different devices will no doubt have a major effect on the tablet market. And I’m certainly lusting after the new ‘paperwhite’ Kindle.

But what about the Kindle DX? The current version of this largest Kindle (with an 9.7″ e-ink screen) was released over two years ago, and hasn’t seen a major software upgrade since that time. Despite being seemingly tailor-made for reading PDF journal articles comfortably on an e-ink screen, the DX is missing the advanced PDF highlighting and navigation functions that were added to all the smaller Kindles long ago. The price hasn’t changed since July 2010 either – it’s still $379. (For the record, $379 could buy you five regular Kindles with money left over for books now.)

At this point I have to wonder what plans Amazon has for the DX. Sometimes I picture a warehouse somewhere packed full of the devices after an accidental massive over-order long ago. But even if that were true, why hasn’t the price dropped at all?

Amazon sometimes has mysterious motives, but with the DX it seems to be playing an unusually long and confusing game.

A post-scarcity world

Last week I watched a printer spit out a skull. While I worked on a project at our local TechShop, another member was testing their new Makerbot. Bit by bit, a flawless four inch plastic skull grew before my eyes. I’ve read and thought about 3d printers before, but seeing one in action pushed some buttons about the future of physical items. In particular, I got thinking about what role libraries might play in a world with commonplace 3d printing.

Musician Jonathan Coulton was somehow thinking about the same ideas at the same time. In his reaction to an NPR blog post about young people’s attitudes toward paying for music, Coulton took his analysis in a fascinating direction. He theorized heavily about what might happen to many industries in a post-scarcity world.

What happens when a product can be reproduced by consumers with marginal effort? The music industry and the publishing world are facing early signs of that reality now, but won’t be the last. Coulton goes on to talk about the imminent rise of 3d printers, and the pile of industries they stand ready to disrupt. (There’s an especially fascinating look at a man who printed his own adapters to connect legos, k’nex, and lincoln logs)

Coulton’s post should be required reading for anybody in the library world. While he’s not talking specifically about us, his vision of a post-scarcity world is right up our alley. Libraries have built our business on reducing scarcity – we took a relatively uncommon item like a paper book and made it available to more people than would have access to it otherwise. Now we face the possibility of scarcity itself dropping off a cliff.

Let’s pretend for a minute that the post-scarcity world is upon us. Physical objects which can be easily digitized (books, music, etc) have become virtually obsolete. Most other common 3d goods are now printed at home. What industries or services would be left with viable business models? Here’s a few off the top of my head:

-Support systems for the printers. Raw materials to print with, repairs, etc.

-Food services like restaurants and grocery stores would probably be largely unaffected.

-Other services based around the human body would likely survive relatively unaltered as well. Travel, salons, massages, gyms, etc.

-There will likely be a boom in services related to information management.

I want to focus on that last item a bit, because I think that’s the only place for libraries in a post-scarcity world. If scarcity dies, we would no longer need to be a place to distribute most books, music, or movies. In some ways, that excites me. We’d be able to stop focusing all our efforts on these physical and digital objects! Those objects’ shortcomings have always been something we routed around.

Remove those roadblocks, and we could focus our services on what we’ve always done very well: organizing information and helping people access it. With scarcity gone, the resulting glut of information would be paralyzing if left unsortable and unfiltered.

Libraries which solely manage a flow of non-scarce digital information would admittedly be unrecognizable compared to their current form, but it would still represent a way forward for the profession and a valuable service to society. We might actually be better off than many other industries in the long run, but only if we can convince ourselves to get past the lending of physical objects as the way we justify our collective existence.

OK, Sorry, I went kind of sci-fi crazy there for a minute. I’ll reel it back in: I don’t know if we’ll see society dispense with most scarcity within my lifetime, but I do know that we’ve already seen it decrease in some sectors. Many libraries (both public and academic) face questions from their users here and now: why is a library necessary in an ebook and netflix world? We’re tied to distribution of objects which face an impending removal of scarcity. Can we shift away from them, while we still can?

(Eli Neiburger made very similar points almost two years ago in his “Libraries are Screwed” presentation. It should be required viewing for every librarian everywhere.)

Seeing a 3d printer in action, I noticed something that I’ve never seen mentioned about them before: They’re musical. Think of the noise an old dot-matrix 2d printer made, but somehow more tuned to random notes. So as a musical skull appeared out of thin air in front of my eyes, that’s what triggered the sci-fi thinking. I couldn’t help but wonder about a future in a post-scarcity world. As a group, libraries understandably fight today for ways to lend digital items. But will that even matter in the long term? What if we’re barking up the wrong tree entirely?

The good news is that we stand a chance for survival in a post-scarcity world. The bad news is that we might have to let go of a core part of our identity to get there.

Is Udacity the future of higher ed?

I’ve spent the last two months enrolled in Udacity‘s Computer Science 101 course, and I’m happy to report that I scored 100% on the final exam! But what was it like?

Udacity is a Higher-Ed Startup, as odd as that term seems. That’s a crowded category lately, with startups offering college-level instruction for free. Of course there’s one important caveat: Udacity is unaccredited. I’m not working toward a degree here, though I will get a snazzy certificate of completion to print out.

Was it academically rigorous? Yes, though I don’t think it’s quite equivalent to the CS 101 class I took as an undergrad. There were some more advanced concepts missing from Udacity’s class. Instead, I found it roughly equivalent to the AP Computer Science class I took in high school. We started with foundations of what a computer is and how it works, and got all the way up to some trickier concepts like data structures and recursion. Portions of the final exam were quite challenging, and one of the questions stumped me until almost the last minute.

But I think evaluating Udacity’s CS 101 as a course should boil down to one question: Do I know more about programming than I did in April? Yes, I absolutely do. Professor Dave Evans (who also teaches at the University of Virginia) is a great teacher who capably broke up complex concepts into understandable nuggets. I’ll admit this was somewhat of a refresher course for me, but my original CS 101 class was over ten years ago and much of the knowledge I retained was quite faded. It was helpful to come in with some basic level of programming experience, but I think I could have done well even without that baseline.

What’s more interesting to me is Udacity’s course structure. I probably spent 3 or 4 hours per week on the class in total. The learning experience is broken up into seven units, each designed to take a week to complete. Each unit is in turn broken up into short (usually 1-3 minutes) videos and automated quizzes. It’s simple to rewatch the more complex portions of a video, something I did quite a bit. At the end of each unit there’s a set of automatically evaluated homework questions. Units built on each other, slowly teaching us how to build an actual functioning web crawler and search engine. I’m quite impressed that such a seemingly complex task could be taught so well to programming novices in just 8 weeks.

While the work was rigorous, I admit the promise of instantly available solutions for the homework made it very tempting to give up on a question earlier than I would have otherwise. Homework didn’t count toward the course grade, but in retrospect I wish it did.

Like any class, Udacity’s offerings will only be as good as the instructor teaching it. While I was quite happy with Dave Evans’ teaching style, I grew somewhat frustrated with one of the TAs. Explanations and clarifications were often confusing and hard to follow. But this was where the class discussion forums came in handy. Another student was often able to clarify things much better than the actual TA. I’ll admit I never actively participated in the discussions, but I was the recipient of much wisdom from reading along.

So my overall Udacity experience was a positive one. I refreshed/enhanced my basic programming knowledge and got that snazzy certificate. I’m happy enough that I’ll be signing up for more courses in the next session. I’m going to attempt both CS253 (Web Application Engineering) and their new Intro to Statistics offering at the same time. I might drop down to just one, but I’m optimistic that I can handle both. The next course session is the first time Udacity has expanded beyond Computer Science, with these new offerings:

  • Intro to Physics: Landmarks in Physics
  • Intro to Statistics: Making Decisions Based on Data Statistics
  • Logic & Discrete Mathematics: Foundations in Computing
  • Software Testing: How to Make Software Fail
  • Algorithms: Crunching Social Networks

I’m very interested to see if something beyond CS can be taught well in such a CS-aligned platform. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun has said that in 50 years there will only be ten providers of higher education in the whole world. I don’t think he’s right about that, but I do think there’s a place for offerings from Udacity at the table.

Maxing out the curve on ebook adoption

Last week Melissa and I visited the Wake County Public Library’s annual fundraiser book sale. I’d heard the legends, but never actually attended: 400,000+ books laid out on tables in a giant warehouse at the state fairgrounds. It’s pictured here. Think of the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now fill it with books instead of crates. That’s what it was like.

We went on day 1, with prices at a relatively high $4/hardcover and $2/paperback. We came away with a good haul of 15-20 books, all stuff we’ve legitimately wanted to read. Things were orderly and dignified in the warehouse, with staffers calmly directing shoppers to their preferred genre. I took my time and pieced together William Gibson’s entire Bridge trilogy, among other finds. We left feeling happy and encouraged. But then, based on that encouragement, we foolishly returned on the final day of the sale. By that point everything drops to $5 per box (and it’s a big box).

A certain kind of madness had set in. I witnessed shoppers indiscriminately shove whole rows of books into a box. It didn’t matter what kind of book, who the author was, or even what condition it was in – they wanted them all. Others jealously guarded a stack of empty boxes, keeping watch while a partner filled them one by one. The Children’s section looked like the aftermath of a bomb, and the sci-fi tables in particular were picked to the bone. Only the sad Reference section remained quiet (and if you ever wanted a copy of the 1997 NC Statutes, boy was that your chance). Trying to browse was chaotic at best, and we came away with only another half dozen books that we really truly wanted to read and own. Still a deal, but I’m not sure it was worth the ordeal.

The whole experience popped back into my head this morning when I saw Pew’s new report on ebook adoption and use in the US. Between PDF journal articles at work and my Kindle at home, I spend most of my reading life in the e-book world. But Pew reminds me that my habits aren’t yet normal at all. Just 21% of adults have read an ebook in the past year. Granted, Pew also found that the number of people who read an ebook each day has increased four times in just the last two years. But as noted in the summary:

“The prevalence of e-book reading is markedly growing, but printed books still dominate the world of book readers.”

Now I’m thinking back to the hardcore book grabbers at the sale: what will convince them to adopt e-books? Or would anything at all conceivably push them past the tipping point? Will they give up their feeding frenzy sales and packed bookshelves for a little convenience? Personally, I could see myself hitting that point someday. But the sale truly reminded me that I’m not the normal here.

I think what Pew left off at the end of that sentence above is “…for now.” That 21% will certainly continue to grow, but not forever. At what point will it eventually level off? At what point will we max out on the adoption curve? Will we be left with a few book-preferring holdouts, or will it be a more equal division? What will fundraiser book sales of the future look like, if they exist at all?

And, as always: Where do libraries fit into this picture?