Evaluating Content Management Systems

A content management system (CSM) is a package of software that makes it easier to publish to the web by offering you tools like a back-end, with buttons and text editors. It’s easy to format and reformat a site you build in a CMS because “content” — the text, images, and other media you upload — is stored in a database, separate from instructions for styling and displaying the site.

Examples: BGSU uses Canvas for its “learning management system” (LMS), which is a kind of CMS, and our class website that you’re reading right now is on WordPress. Facebook, too, uses a huge, custom-made CMS: it’s nothing but a ginormous database containing posts, media, users, and so forth, and a complex set of instructions that displays information from that database that you see when you log in online.  Same for Wikipedia, or Amazon, or Netflix, or pretty much any large web presence, as well as any twelve-year-old’s blog. There are approximately a zillion CMS’s; here’s wikipedia’s seemingly large but still only limited list.

There are many CMS’s out there used by digital humanities practitioners, among them:


Note that these are all open source (meaning their code is freely available).

Your assignment is to pick one of these CMSs (or another platform of your choice, with consultation from me) and investigate some questions about it.

  • How does this platform distinguish itself from others?
  • Who built (builds) the platform?
  • For whom is the platform intended?
  • What language(s) is (are) it written in?
  • What kinds of sites or projects currently use this platform?
  • What possibilities does it offer for display? For example, how easy is it to reconfigure the form of a project? How many options are configurable?
  • Does the platform seem to assume that you want to display content in a certain configuration? If so, what is it?
  • How easy is it for a layperson to install this platform? To use it?
  • Who can modify the platform’s source code?
  • What kind of database does the CMS use? Can you tell anything about the format of data contained in the database?
  • Can you attach metadata to the content you enter? If so, what kind?

Once you’ve answered these questions, compose a 1,000-1,500 word essay, explaining your answers and using this information to speculate on their ethical and intellectual implications for scholarly work. A framing question might be, “If we chose this platform for our group project, ‘What is Digital Humanities?,’ what would our implicit message be?” You might consider:

  • the philosophy of the platform toward the relationship of form and content
  • the attitude the CMS adopts toward the flow of information
    the ethical implications of the platform’s assumptions about organizing (or not organizing) content
  • its assumptions about who should have access to and modify information

A couple of background readings, available in our Zotero group list:

Submit your essay to canvas by April 24.

Note: this assignment is taken almost entirely from the following: