Learning HTML is no longer a requirement for building a website for your project. There are many platforms-- general-purpose platforms and ones tailored to specific kinds of projects-- that allow you to build much more sophisticated project sites than would be possible if you were building from scratch. When choosing a platform for your project website, the major factors to consider include functionality, familiarity, community, support, and cost.
What do you want your project site to do? Are you developing an exhibit or collection of material, which needs to be displayed in a sequential order? Are you developing a directory, that you want to be browsable and searchable based on metadata you've entered (like "author", "publication date", "media used", etc.)? Do you want to use your site to transcribe content, or add annotations? Will users be able to create their own accounts, and will having an account provide them with additional access or unlock new tools on the site? What format(s) does your content take (text, audio, video, still images, downloadable files, etc)? Will your content be stored on the site itself, or is it coming from another hosting provider, like YouTube, a library website, or an institutional repository? How do you want to display your content-- in an image gallery, a timeline, a map, a list, or some other way?
These are just a handful of the considerations that should influence your decision about what platform to choose for your project. Functionality is the most important factor to address. While the other factors-- familiarity, community, support, and cost-- can help you choose between multiple options that provide more or less the same level of functionality, choosing a platform that does not do what you need, because it's free or support is available for it is only a good idea as a stop-gap measure (e.g. to establish a URL and web presence in time for a conference or grant proposal) while you explore better options.
Ideally, you'd find a platform that does everything you want your project site to do, with minimal extra configuration, allowing you to focus on preparing and entering your data. This rarely happens, in part because what you want your site to do is often tied to the unique traits of your data itself, which a pre-made system isn't designed to accommodate without a little (or a lot) of work.
Some platforms, like Drupal, are extremely generic, and almost certainly won't do what you want out-of-the-box. To build a scholarly project site with Drupal, you have to add numerous "modules"-- or pieces of packaged-up functionality that someone has written code for. Drupal has a large international community of developers who write modules, and most modules can be installed and configured without you or your assistants ever having to look at the underlying code. Choosing a generic platform requires more time investment upfront, but leaves you with more flexibility later. For instance, if your project starts off with only text, but you later decided to incorporate video, it may be considerably easier to make that change if you've chosen a generic platform like Drupal (which some people use for textual content, others for video content, others for spreadsheet-like data) than a platform designed specifically for managing texts.
Other platforms make it very easy to build certain types of sites. Omeka is an example of a platform for sharing collections and exhibits. There are "add-ons" available for Omeka that extend its functionality, much like Drupal "modules", but they are intended to improve its collections and exhibits, not to fundamentally transform it into a different kind of platform, as add-ons for more generic platforms sometimes can (e.g. the BuddyPress "plugin", which turns WordPress from a blogging and generic content management platform into a social networking platform). Similarly, MediaWiki is a platform for building a wiki, and its "extensions" generally provide additional wiki functionality.
If you're not sure how your project may evolve, and all things are equal with regard to the other factors (like community, cost and support), you may be better off choosing a generic platform, to keep your options open. If you have a clear sense of the limits of the project's scope, it may be better to choose a more specialized platform, if an appropriate platform exists.
Platforms that started out having very different user interfaces are increasingly converging around certain design approaches and choices. All commonly-used platforms have (or can have, with the help of a module or plugin) a text authoring interface with WYSIWYG capabilities ("what you see is what you get" -- e.g. buttons you can click on to do things like make the font bold, or add a link, rather than making the user write HTML). Designs, or themes, that you can download and use for sites running any platform are increasingly adopting adaptive or responsive design techniques, which render the site differently depending on whether it's being viewed on a high-resolution laptop, a tablet, or a phone. This convergence makes it easier to make choices about the platform for your site without overly concerning yourself with what platforms are already being used by other popular sites in your field: chances are, you can make your site behave like other sites, even if it's running on a different platform. That said, the more you expect users to interact with your site-- be it through adding new content, or providing transcriptions or annotations, or engaging with other users-- the more important it is to minimize the learning curve required of your users. One of the easiest ways to do that is using platforms and plugins that they're already familiar with. For example, if you're building a scholarly network, and you know your users are MLA members, you may want to use the Commons In A Box package, which powers MLA Commons.
"Community" here refers to the group of people who are using the platform. Do other scholars in your field, or in related fields, use the platform that you are considering? A platform that's widely used by scholars may be a better choice than a platform whose major user base is small business owners, but if all the example sites you can find come from the sciences, where their data is considerably different than yours, you may want to make sure the platform meets your needs. Choosing a platform that's already being used by a community of humanities scholars may make it easier for you to ask questions, and get tips and advice on how to deal with problems that arise, without having to translate your questions into language more easily understandable for technologists without a humanities background or scholars in another discipline.
Who can help you develop a site using this platform, and what skills are required to do so? Most universities provide faculty with free access to some sort of web publishing platform, and offer training workshops and/or one-on-one consultation. Many universities also have a web development group with professional staff who may be available to consult or directly help you build your project site, at lower-than-market rates, but they may place restrictions on what platforms you can choose.
If support from a central or departmental IT group isn't an option (either because it's unavailable, or because the platforms they support are truly a bad fit for your project), there are ways of finding support on your own. There may be formal or informal meet-up groups around certain platforms, which provide an opportunity for people who are using the platform to exchange tips and suggestions, and you may be able to find someone in one of those groups who could do some freelance work. (The Berkeley Drupal Users' Group is one example.) You may be able to find a graduate or undergraduate student who can provide you with hands-on assistance, but it's important to know what you're looking for. Do you need someone to help you configure the platform by selecting, installing, and configuring a set of "modules" that are already available? This work requires a significantly less technical skill set than if you need someone to write new code to provide functionality that doesn't currently exist. If you need the person to write code, be sure you know what language(s) they will have to use-- it can vary depending on the platform, and the nature of what you need done. Depending on how elaborate your site design is, you might need to look for someone who has experience developing themes for your platform, which can be a very different skill set than writing modules. Your hosting choices may also be relevant here: are you hosting the site with a service that takes care of setting up the database and installing the platform, or do you need support from someone who can do that kind of work? Step-by-step installation guides can be found for all major platforms, but someone who's mostly comfortable configuring modules for the platform may not be comfortable working on the server level.
With the exception of writing code for modules, which does require specialized knowledge, building a site using most platforms is not beyond the capabilities of a curious humanities graduate student, given some time and opportunity to experiment and take advantage of the numerous how-to guides, books and video tutorials available online.However, some platforms may be more appealing to learn than others, especially for students considering alternative academic careers.
The cost of a project website takes many forms-- hosting, configuration, ongoing maintenance, and the cost of developing new modules, if needed. Sometimes these costs are bundled together, for instance, if you're using proprietary software that's developed, hosted and maintained by a company. In most cases, though, you'll have to estimate these costs, which can vary wildly: inexpensive commercial hosting can cost around $100/year whereas deluxe packages where you have dedicated server resources can cost $100/month; undergraduates available through a research apprenticeship program may work for course credit, while professional web developers can charge $100+/hour. If you're using a freely-available open source platform, and you don't need to have new modules developed, your major costs will be site configuration and data entry. Finding the time to learn the platform well enough to do the configuration work yourself, and/or having a research assistant do that work, can cut costs considerably.
Because of the interplay of these various factors, it's hard to provide a general recommendation about what platform to use. Here are some commonly used platforms (all free and open source):
- Drupal - a general-purpose platform with a large international community of developers, including in higher ed and digital humanities. The Berkeley Drupal Users Group meets monthly on campus. A new working group of people who use Drupal for research will start meeting in spring semester 2014; contact Quinn (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
- MediaWiki - wiki platform used by Wikipedia and the Brueghel Family Research Website.
- Omeka, free/paid hosted version available at http://www.omeka.net/; designed for publishing collections/exhibits.
- Scalar is often used for multi-modal projects, and excels in multimedia annotation. The Scalar site includes a few examples of projects that use it.
- WordPress - great for simple web publishing and blogging out of the box; lots of plugins are available to turn WordPress into a platform for text annotation (CommentPress), social networking (BuddyPress), etc.
The Digital Humanities consulting service is available to discuss with you what might be a good fit for your project. Please email email@example.com or use the contact form on this site.