No college is an island: Amherst College chooses Islandora

black and white photograph of Amherst, MA featuring Amherst College, 1800s

Behind the letters, images, photographs, and other treasures on display in Amherst College Digital Collections is software. To the public, this software is largely invisible, with our user interface showcasing the discovery and display of the digital objects from Archives and Special Collections. Our underlying software infrastructure requires ongoing maintenance, upkeep, and upgrade as technology changes and our needs change. I’m here today to share a choice we’ve made for the future of our digital collections software, which is that we are going to start using Islandora in our software stack.

island and lighthouse
Mitchell Lighthouse on Long Island, Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Collection

This month we are beginning the process to migrate to Islandora. This software is only one piece of the complex network of tools we use to manage our digital collections, but it is an important piece. We use a few different key pieces of software to maintain our online digital collections, one of which is the Fedora repository software, an open source software platform maintained by many institutions in the cultural heritage and educational sector. We are, for the foreseeable future, going to continue to use Fedora, and participate in the development and code contribution to the Fedora open source software. It is a bit unusual to have small liberal arts college contributing code to an open source software project, and it is also fortuitous for Amherst and for the larger academic community. Having input in the governance and technical direction of the software helps us to ensure the needs of liberal arts colleges are realized in the repository software, which benefits our direct needs, and also means we can help surface the needs of many other smaller liberal arts colleges.

map of cuba
Mapa de la Isla de Cuba y plano de la Habana, Manuscript Collection

Up until the past year, we’ve been on our own for the most part in supporting our digital collections repository software. It is an achievement that we are proud of, because of the talented software developers in the library and information technology at Amherst, and for the vision of our library leadership in seeing a place for Amherst at the table of Fedora, which is largely governed by large research institutions.  Being at the table with Fedora has given us something else besides advocacy – it has provided us with a community of colleagues across the globe, who act as peers, sounding boards, and supporters. And the community has given us a much broader reward – because we are a small liberal arts college, we are a small team supporting digital collections. Participating in the Fedora community gives us so many more colleagues and resources, as well as professional growth opportunities.

In our geographical neighborhood, several of our Five College Consortium colleagues have recently developed their own collaborative digital collections platform in Compass, utilizing Fedora as well as the Islandora software. Down the road while visiting with colleagues at Williams, we’ve learned about efforts to bring together members of a group of mostly liberal arts colleges that are part of the Islandora Collaboration Group (ICG) to create shared development projects for Islandora, namely the ISLE and LASIR projects. What stands out from our conversations with colleagues is the power of collaboration, and of aggregation of resources, to create necessary change and development in digital repository software.

title page for book
David Cusick’s sketches of ancient history of the Six Nations: comprising, first, a tale of the foundation of the Great Island (now North America), Native American Literature Collection

We’ve been thinking about Islandora for years at Amherst. Before I arrived about two years ago, it was on the table, as a possible alternative to our custom user interface for our digital collections. In the time I’ve been at Amherst, we’ve had two cycles of planning for our next iteration of our digital collections software. At first, we were holding out for Islandora CLAW, which is the next phase of Islandora, and will include native linked data support, something we are strongly interested in seeing in a future repository.  And while we are still awaiting CLAW as a viable option, as time has gone on it became clearer to us that in the meantime we should start using the current Islandora.

One reason we’ve been reluctant to move to Islandora is because we’ve also been waiting for Fedora 5, which is the version of Fedora that will be based on the Fedora API specification. Fedora’s API aligns with our hopes of moving in the direction of linked data, and using common standards that allow for more flexibility in our application development in the future. We currently run a 3.x version of Fedora, which isn’t actively being supported by Fedora at this point. Based on timing of when Fedora 5 is released, we’ll end up skipping over Fedora 4 entirely, until we upgrade to CLAW in the future.

Steam boat inventory with maps, Nelson Family Juvenilia Collection

Our plan to start using Islandora, while still running an old version of Fedora, felt at first like we were making some kind of U-turn, as we hope in the long run to be off of deprecated software and using linked data more fully in our digital collections repository. As we’ve talked with our colleagues from other Islandora institutions, joined the Islandora Foundation as members, and watched the developments of our colleagues at Fedora institutions, it seems clear that this is just a bend in the road that we need to follow. We’ve learned a lot about the Islandora software and community in our explorations and planning thus far.  We hope to be better advocates for our colleagues in our work with Fedora as a result of our Islandora work, and we hope to align ourselves more closely with our neighbors so that we can start working together more in the future.

We will be installing and configuring Islandora over the next year, with the hopes of having at least a full copy of our current digital collections in place by summer 2019 for testing. We still have many questions about how we will use Islandora, such as whether or not we’ll use Islandora as the user interface. What we do know is that this feels like the right time to make this change, and it will allow us to continue to advocate for the needs of Amherst, and all liberal arts colleges, in the open source software communities of Fedora, and now Islandora. And best of all, we will grow our community of practice, our collaborators, and by aggregating, expand the reach and scope of what we are able to accomplish with our digital collections.

rikers island drawing
View of the East River or Sound taken from Riker’s Island with a distant view of the seat of Joshua Waddington Esq., Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Collection


Images in this post are from the Archives & Special Collections in Amherst College Digital Collections, all found by searching for “island”.

Este Pope is the Head of Digital Programs in the Amherst College Library. She can be contacted at epope at