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How to create an inventory, archive or special collection website using WordPress

Alright, it’s time to go deeper into WordPress niche applications. This time it’s using WordPress to power an academic archive or special collection.

I received the following question as part of my “Ask Me Anything About WordPress” feature:

Hi, I work in a university library in NYC and I’ve been given the task to come up with a low-cost solution for a website that will showcase one of our special collections. The collection consists mainly of books, but there are some loose documents and memorabilia. I noticed your post on the academic conference theme, Eventor, and your reference to MIT, so I was wondering whether you could recommend a theme for a special collection or small academic archive? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Now, this, I admit, is one of the more challenging questions I’ve received so far. My first instinct was to think, sure, take any WordPress theme, devise a taxonomy with categories and tags, upload your special collection material, assign that taxonomy to it and there’s your archive.

But then, I started to wonder whether someone had already tackled this specific application of WordPress; whether a developer or company had created something that expands usual WordPress functionality and brings something unique to the archive and special collection field.

It turns out that there is a theme that could be of use and it was developed by that stalwart of WordPress premium themes, WooThemes. The theme in question is called BookClub – granted, not quite the same thing as an archive, but you’ll see in a moment how it can be fashioned into one.

Taxonomy is Everything

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BookClub is a “child theme” for the WooThemes Listings Framework. The difference between the child theme and the parent theme is simple. Listings (parent) contains the code base and handles the core WordPress functions and BookClub (child) plugs into that functionality and arranges the layout and style of the content.

Together, this duo makes use of custom fields, post types and taxonomies; the key ingredients that will allow us to build an archive or collection. Let me briefly explain each one in turn:

Custom fields arrange data that you want to include in a post; elements such as an author profile, a url, a google map, a date, a range of dates etc. Each field is associated with a data function type (text, video, map, selection box, content upload etc.) and once configured, the custom fields are easily inserted into posts via the WordPress post composition screen.

Custom post types are an inventive way of coordinating content related to a particular subject. Whereas in a standard WordPress installation the user has the option to compose content via the “add post” or “add page” options, BookClub post types create new composition menus devoted to your chosen subject. By default, BookClub displays a side menu related to “books”, but it could be changed to any type of data grouping such as paintings, recipes, companies, animals, plants and so on.

Custom taxonomies tie into the custom post types. They are a combination of tags and categories related to the chosen subject. By default there are three custom taxonomies assigned to the books post type: authors, genres, publishers. These can be altered and more taxonomies can be assigned if necessary. We will see later on how these custom taxonomies are used to organise and filter content on the front end of the theme.

Used in combination, these features allow for a more flexible and holistic relational structure of content than standard WordPress categories and tags. I strongly recommend that the questioner – regardless of whether he or she wishes to go with this specific solution – spend time planning the site’s taxonomy. Put the structure of the content down on paper before starting to build the site. That is going to be 80% of the work The rest will be cosmetic.

Let’s make a step further now and look at two key features of the BookClub theme that bring this custom taxonomy into play: advanced search and content layout.

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(Screenshot of the WooThemes content building options panel. Click to enlarge.)

Advanced Search

Creating an archive or a special collection of material with open access and ease of use is no mean feat: the first step as I have just pointed out is to establish a logical taxonomy. The second step is creating good data retrieval.

The problem that most websites housing extensive data face is an imbalance between data and access. The one is potentially infinite, while the other is restrictively finite. So what does BookClub do to address this problem? Two things.

Firstly, it offers an advanced search box (see thumbnail below) that ties the theme’s advanced taxonomy together. Secondly it turns the search box into a prominent design feature; a module that embellishes, rather than embarasses the design. The result is that searching the BookClub theme becomes a desirable action instead of a laborious chore, and in the field of data retrieval, this is fundamental.

In the above screenshot, you will notice right away that the custom taxonomies described in the previous section have been brought into use as drop down filter boxes here. The arrangement of filters is customizable. Furthermore, at the bottom of the search module is an example of a custom field at work: in this case it is being used to search content by numeric reference. On the right hand side of the module is a tag cloud displaying the most popular tags on the site. The search module can be removed, or set as closed by default in the WooThemes admin panel. Let’s look at those options in more detail.

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Among the options are: the ability to restrict search to custom post types; to restrict the number of results per search page; and when searching by custom field, to limit the search to an exact or minimum numeric value – this is particularly useful if you are working with content items that require numeric values such as price, size, weight, distance and so on. Notice that there is another search related options tab called “search fields”. On this tab you can select the fields to include in the advanced search box drop down filters.

The overall result of these advanced search features is a) they provide more accurate search results and b) a more inviting and user-friendly approach to site content. There’s one more important factor in terms of content classification that we need to consider and that’s the layout of the BookClub theme.

The Layout

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Let’s take a look at the core layout elements of the BookClub front page and see how the extended theme taxonomy is used to organize content.

Immediately below the advanced search box is a carousel that displays featured content related to a chosen tag. The tags can be assigned in the admin panel. Further down is a category-specific content area, here you can make use of the custom post types described earlier to highlight content related to particular themes. BookClub is set by default do display authors, but say you were using the theme to power a special collection of films, this section could display films by particular directors, by genre, even by year of release.

Even further down the theme’s front page, you’ll notice a section called “latest books”. Once again this section makes use of posts assigned to a specific post type. Any number of these sections can be generated in succession, offering ample room for expansion. Finally in the site footer is a series of widgetized areas to display more traditional WordPress blog content such as latest blog posts, a twitter feed or other links.

Before I stop writing, I want to point out one final area where layout and taxonomy play a crucial role: single posts.

Single Posts

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There are three key elements to single posts in the BookClub theme: custom fields, sidebar snippets, and related content. You’ll notice that the area immediately above the post content displays three custom entries related to the post content: the book’s author, the publisher and the price. Each of these values was added to the post using the custom taxonomies described earlier. Any number of fields can be inserted in this section.

The second key element is the use of post ‘snippets’. These appear next to the post’s main body and resemble a traditional WordPress sidebar. However, the content for the snippets, which can include anything from a google map displaying a specific location related to your post, to a slideshow of photos, is entered via the post composition page and calls on the custom fields described earlier.

The final element is a built-in related content section. This section will call up other posts that share the same tag or category offering the visitor further content choices.

Famous Last Words

When I first saw the WooThemes BookClub Theme I didn’t expect it to be a suitable candidate for an archive of special collections website, but upon further scrutiny I think it is a prime contender. Inevitably, transforming the BookClub theme into an archive is going to take some time and a degree of learning. There will be a learning curve, but then there is with any theme you work with (and don’t let developers and marketers fool you otherwise). But if you stick with it, BookClub (and the Listings Framework) has the ingredients to be a powerful CMS that could quite easily handle a library, museum or other institutional archive website.

I hope this has gone some way to answering my contributor’s question. As you can see, this was a tricky one and the length of this post reflects that. Let me know what you think and if you know of other themes that would fit this bill, please post them below in the comments.

Written by Will Ellington

Originally from the UK, I currently live in Osaka, Japan, where I work in higher education. I’ve been a WordPress user since 2004 and have developed numerous projects with it over the years. Wpliving is a place to share things i've learnt along the way, and to explore innovations in WordPress too.

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