American History Central Relaunch

In August 2009, we (Harry Searles and Randal Rust) put on a workshop in Indianapolis at the annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH). The workshop provided insight into the process for developing an online digital encyclopedia. As part of the workshop, we created a working demo of a digital encyclopedia, using our Encyclopedia Content Management System (eCMS). We called it American History Central (AHC).

In the seven years since American History Central launched, we (mostly Harry) have written a significant amount of content, including full entries and lists of quick facts, content that has yet to see the light of day. Why is that? For starters, we were sidetracked with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As natives of Ohio, we turned our attention to the developed of Ohio Civil War Central (OCWC). OCWC is a wonderful site dedicated to the role that Ohio and Ohioans played in the Civil War. OCWC launched in 2011 and contains more than 1,500 entries.

Like OCWC, AHC is built on the original eCMS system. When I built eCMS, open-source solutions like WordPress were either very difficult to use or lacked the features we needed. eCMS was built from scratch, using open-source technologies. At the beginning, eCMS handled everything that was needed for an online digital encyclopedia. Today, those needs are very much the same. A digital encyclopedia project needs to:

  • Have a taxonomy.
  • Allow for multiple types of Objects (Entries, Images, Documents, Videos, Recordings, etc.).
  • Allow Objects to be organized by the Taxonomy.
  • Allow staff members to add Metadata to each Object.

However, there are a couple of key things that have changed over time, which have led us to a new approach for eCMS and the second big reason for the delay in the site’s development. First, the design of websites — User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) — has dramatically changed, especially in the last five years. With the rise of phones and tablets, responsive web design has become vital to the long-term success of a website. Second, and probably more importantly, WordPress has become a very mature, stable CMS and is much more than the simple blogging platform that it was a decade ago.

With each encyclopedia project that we have worked on (and we have done more than anyone else), our primary focus has always been on the technical side. As the developer, I was always more interested in making sure that the system provided a simple administrative interface that would allow users that weren’t all that tech savvy to do data entry. As websites matured, and became more interactive, clients began asking for more features that were related to design, and not eCMS functionality. At first, I was happy to build slideshows and photo galleries into the eCMS system, but those really aren’t the features that I was interested in. I found myself spending a significant amount of time building components that were focused on providing bells and whistles. I was at a crossroads, because it was clear that I simply couldn’t continue building on the original eCMS framework and keep up with all of the UI and UX features that people were asking for.

At that point, I took a look at two options — WordPress and Drupal. It was a quick, easy decision and I settled on WordPress. We were already using it for other websites, and I decided it was best — and most efficient — to use one platform for all of our website development and design work. By using WordPress, the possibilities are nearly endless for each encyclopedia project that we will work on from this point forward. The WordPress architecture gives us access to plugins and themes that will allow our clients to have all of the UI and UX features they want.

Next, I had to figure out how to include all of the eCMS functionality within WordPress, and I came to the conclusion that it was going to work best as a plugin, and that’s how the eCMS WP plugin came to be. I have been working on the plugin on and off for roughly two years. Earlier this year, the first encyclopedia to use eCMS WP — South Carolina Encyclopedia — went live.

Over the last two months, I have been working to convert the original version of AHC from eCMS to eCMS WP. It has been a lengthy process, but I have finally been able to get things to a point where I can relaunch the site. But it’s more — much more — than that. Today, I have a site that Harry and I can build on and expand in many different ways. I can finally publish the content that he has written and has been sitting on the shelf for several years and we can start expanding the site and filling in the gaps. We can finally get back to making American History Central everything that we want — an exceptional resource for teachers and students and an example of what is possible for each and every digital encyclopedia project.