No college is an island: Amherst College chooses Islandora

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

Building Collections and Connections

The work of digitizing archival and special collections material is not a “traditional” library activity. Times have changed in libraries.

Image of Emily Dickinson "Me, change! Me, alter!" poem
“Me, change! Me, alter!” by Emily Dickinson Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Change is a constant in our work – perhaps that is what hasn’t changed. Change is in the evolving materials that cross the desk of our archivists and metadata librarians as they organize and describe what is before them. Change is represented in the digital files with endless strings of names and numbers that fill the hard drives in our digital studio and compose the content of our digital repository servers. Change is new, too, in that we no longer deal only in the physical, but in the digital. This change to digital has in some ways been a slow burn over the past twenty or so years, with incremental adjustments made to how we do our work, moving from printed finding aids and catalog cards to digital lookup tools and websites that can convey similar collection information around the globe. In our most recent iterations of change, we are beginning to deal with scale of collections in a way that challenges our instincts around description and what information is most critical to get out on the web versus what can wait.

Some change in organizations is quantifiable, recognizable. A library building renovation begins with clearing out the space, moving to a temporary location, and then moving back to the new space. These are points in time that can be marked by a cake or a party or a ribbon cutting ceremony. For the work in building digital collections, we don’t have ribbon cutting ceremonies for the new workflows we implement with a new digital camera that captures much more resolution, or the streamlined archives processing model to increase throughput of content description. These moments happen on a regular Tuesday at 10 o’clock most likely, when someone sits down at their workstation, and begins to test out a new process. It happens in unnoticed ways. We produce life size posters of items in the collection, we create digital publications for you to explore, but we also write new workflows, commit to regular meetings, and challenge ourselves to ask one another hard questions as we work with one another in the library.

This blog post is a celebration of that invisible work that we don’t always show you, here is the cake:

picture of a sheet cake that says 'We did it!! New Workflow!"
We need more cakes.

In our work on the Bicentennial digital projects, we’ve been meeting every month for close to a year as a team to plan, review, and build not only the digital collections, but also build our team of practitioners. Recently, we’ve begun the work of helping to build a stronger team in the library with the staff working in Archives, Digital Programs and Metadata. Thanks to the support of Human Resources and the Librarian of the College, we’ve embarked on a plan to build community, to build deeper connections among all of us doing this digital work. The hope is that it will help us to grapple with the change, to identify the milestones and to celebrate with one another the accomplishments we are making in this work. We recently talked about change at a retreat with the help of our Human Resources department and were presented with a great visualization on the process of change and transition from William Bridges.

image of transition model superimposed over a tree in a field - Endings - Neutral Zone - New Beginnings
William Bridges’ Transition Model – different people can be at different phases in the transition, all at the same time.

We want to make a lot of material available to the widest possible audience from the archives and special collections at Amherst College, and we will continue to work with one another to live through the changes, and to maintain, preserve, and care for the materials and one another. Wish us luck!!!

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

Repositories, repair, and system migrations

Innovation and disposability…

Technology innovation is a given in our fast-moving culture of social media and disposable devices, yet innovation isn’t all that drives the technology infrastructure underlying the systems we use everyday. In the library, we us many online resources driven by databases that organize, track, and deliver the content we need, when we need it. In some ways, a database is a lot like a library – books are on shelves, and we have a catalog that tells us where to find those books, and when someone comes looking for one we can help them find it.


At Amherst College, we are in the midst of a long process of improving our database system that manages our digital collections. And while innovation is a central factor in our migration planning, another theme is emerging around the notion of repair. If you think about it, repair is a necessary function of the world. We repair our heating systems when they stop working, sometimes it is a small fix, sometimes it requires a completely new system. We also repair less and less as our culture seems to move in the direction of disposability – it is often easier to replace things like toaster ovens than to repair them.

poem written on part of envelope
Emily Dickinson Envelope Poem, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

In the digital library world, we don’t have a lot of cheap, easily replaceable toasters. Most of what we are dealing with involves very fragile (yes!) digital objects that represent physical objects in our collections, like the envelopes that Emily Dickinson wrote poems on, or the first course catalogs in our college’s history. We can’t easily replace these digital objects and all the hours of work that goes into photographing and describing. We are reliant upon a stalwart digital system to keep things running smooth.

Digital preservation and digital repositories

We use the term digital preservation to point at what we hope to achieve, which is some kind of digital stasis of the objects we are storing and serving up online. Increasingly, the objects don’t have a physical surrogate, they are what we have labelled “born digital” and these are especially tenuous and fragile, to the point where we talk half-jokingly about printing things out just to have a backup physical copy. And it is our database systems, or digital repositories, that we entrust a good deal of our hopes for digital preservation. If we have a good system, we expect digital objects to persist over time without degradation.

fedora repository logo
Fedora is a robust, modular, open source repository system for the management and dissemination of digital content.

At Amherst, we use the Fedora repository to manage our digital collections. Fedora is, in the landscape of digital repositories, kind of a like a star quarterback, at least in my mind. Everyone knows about it, knows it does what you will expect it to, and maybe also, everyone wonders when it will retire, because it is getting a little old. Fedora is a perfect example to me also of the idea of innovation mixed with repair. There are many things about Fedora that work well, and help us to steer in the direction of digital preservation.

But Fedora needs some updates, modernization, and reinvention. Fortunately, the community of Fedora users has been working over the past few years to conduct these innovations/modernizations and tweaks to the underlying infrastructure. One of the beauties of Fedora is that it is an open source repository, and is maintained by a community of users who have a stake and an interest in seeing it sustained and continuing to flourish. This is where repair meets innovation in my mind – because Fedora is also not like a quarterback. I like to think of Fedora as more like a barn – something that can continue to serve a purpose, and be repurposed, while also leveraging the type of thing it is and how identifiable it is in our culture.

Repair and innovation

pencil drawing of house and barn
Sketch of House and Barn, Nelson, Elmer H., 1878-1930, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

I was exposed to this idea of repair as a corollary to innovation by way of Bethany Nowviskie, the director of the Digital Library federation, who wrote about the work of Steven Jackson, a information science researcher at Cornell, in her 2014 talk “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene.” She relates his discussion of the notion of repair to resilience and to establishing communities of care, both of which concepts are critical if we are to engage in digital preservation and stewarding digital content for the long term. Steven Jackson brings many ideas to his chapter, “Rethinking Repair,” with a central idea of repair being way to prevent or prolong decay, while also being a mode of reinvention or innovation. Applying this notion to the work of the Fedora community, it is clear to me that Fedora is encapsulating ideas of repair in the work of the Fedora specification, and implementation of new features that interact more with the broader web while aiming towards sound digital preservation. Fedora is kind of ‘old’ in terms of a technology, having been around for twenty years, but it is still reinventing itself and evolving, and with the specification it will likely continue to evolve.

The future of the digital repository is being developed, and we won’t know exactly how it will be implemented, or what repairs and innovations will be required to make it shine the way the Amherst College community requires. One of the ways I’m assured that we will embody repair and innovation is because of the community – between our team of developers and librarians working to ensure a sound system here at Amherst College, and the larger Fedora community that we are a part of. We think of technology often as a lonely and isolated aspect of our modern world, but for those of working the digital library systems at Amherst College, it indeed embodies a dynamic community of care, and a set of tools we care deeply about, because they preserve our culture, our history, and help us to create the future we hope for.  Barn-raisings were a common way to build a barn at one point in the history of the United States, and served as a way of leveraging all the skills of the community to help out a neighbor. I see the work we are involved in with Fedora as a kind of barn-raising, or a barn-renovating, and one that will help us out, but will help out countless other libraries and cultural heritage organizations preserve their treasures. The recent release of the Fedora API Specification is a testament to this effort to work together and make something even more people can use. To preserve things, it isn’t just the technology, it is the people doing the technology, that is going to give us a modicum of trust that things will survive in this digital age.

Este Pope is the Head of Digital Programs for the Frost Library at Amherst College. She can be contacted @ epope at amherst dot edu.

Welcome – what are we doing here?

In an effort to document and organize our work around building digital collections at Amherst College, this space will provide an avenue for sharing our work and connecting with the community interested in this work.

This page includes background information on our process in building digital collections, where we will include technical and workflow information about how we go about making decisions in our work. This page will also include overviews of the various projects we are working on, with links to other relevant information where needed.

Picture of computer screen with image being scanned displayed.
Digitization coordinator Timothy Pinault scans the old town map. Photo by Skylhur Tranqille ’18

We will also post entries here to document the work process, our thoughts and discoveries along the way, and will reach out to those who might be interested in the collections we are digitizing to get feedback as we work.

We hope to see you visit us here again soon!