Introduction to Islandora

by Stephen Perkins (Sr. Solution Architect & Project Manager)

The intent of this article is to provide a mid-level overview of the Islandora open source digital asset management framework with enough information for the reader to qualify whether it can provide your project, institution, or organization (public or private) with a solution for curating, enriching, and publishing collections of all sorts of assets. As such its aim is to inform on key points and provide channels for deeper exploration. 

My own discovery of Islandora came as a result of an effort to locate or define (and subsequently participate in an effort to create) an open source solution to creating, managing, and publishing a wide variety of digital humanities assets. I’m quite excited to have found an existing tools set that answered most of the requirements on a very long list.

In Brief

For the time or attention challenged:

  • Islandora is an open source framework of software use to securely store, collaboratively manage, and provide access to a wide variety of digital asset collections.
  • Islandora development began in 2006 at the University of Prince Edward Island. Contributions now come from an international community that is shepherded by the non-profit Islandora Foundation.
  • Islandora’s user base is made of institutions, organizations, and projects: Libraries, Museums, Universities, Historical Societies, Foundations, Archives, and Digital Humanities projects.
  • The core technology stack—all open source—is Drupal (front end), Solr (search), and Fedora Commons (repository).
  • Islandora is a best practices framework that complies with the Open Archives Information System reference model, a conceptual framework providing concepts, terminology, and best practices for long term preservation of information; and, it supports the use of open standards for encoding and transmission of metadata.
  • Islandora is flexible and versatile, implementing Solution Packs that bundle tools supporting specific types of content and knowledge domains.
  • Take a look at some real world instances of Islandora just following, and contact us if you’d like to know more or want to see what some of your own content would look like in Islandora.

What’s It Look Like?

The best thing about Islandora are works being created with it (and yours can be among them), so let’s start with some visuals from real world instances of Islandora doing what it does best.

Sample Site: Editing Modernism in Canada


The Editing Modernism in Canada Project (EMiC) uses Islandora to facilitate collaboration among researchers and institutions from regions across Canada and from the UK, France, Belgium, and the United States.


Sample Site: Barnard Digital Collections


The Barnard Archives and Special Collections uses Islandora as the repository for the historical records of Barnard College. 


Sample Site: Florida State University Digital Archives


The Florida State University Digital Library uses Islandora to provide online access to thousands of unique manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, rare books, historic maps and other materials from across the FSU campus libraries and beyond.

These are just a few out of hundreds of Islandora sites! You can view more examples on our Case Studies page. 

Why Islandora?

A Perfect Match Between Tools and Communities

I’m really comfortable with a solution that pays heed to the special requirements and standards of the communities it proposes to serve and Islandora does this on several fronts:

  • Stewardship: It provides secure storage of assets, their metadata (how we understand them), and access.
  • Collaboration: Communities of contributors are supported in their work by easy-to-use tools for creation, editing, and review of content.
  • Access: Islandora uses open standards so everything is stored and cataloged in a way that optimizes retrieval for both contributors and consumers. It provides options for making content discoverable by search services, e.g. via federated search portals.
  • Flexibility: It’s open source and extensible, making it cost effective to adapt to content or subject domain specific requirements, and sustainable over time.

Open Archives Information System Compliancy

Islandora’s compliance with the OAIS conceptual framework means:

  • It is designed with long term preservation in mind (and that can mean “indefinite”), taking into account that there will be changes in data formats, technology, and the user communities it serves.
  • It supports primary and supporting information for both digitally and physically archived objects.
  • It implements a standard for the concepts, terminology, best practices in long term digital preservation and meets the requirements for functionality an OAIS-compliant system should provide: Ingestion, Archival Storage, Data Administration, and Access.

Ease of Adoption and Use

The Islandora experience is great for the adopting entity and its users.

From the adopter’s perspective:

  • All technologies employed are open source, widely supported, and have large, active user communities.
  • The framework is scalable. Instances can range in scope from small projects run by an individual to institution-wide deployments supporting multiple projects with hundreds of thousands of objects and large geographically disparate user groups.
  • Deployment options make getting started quick and easy, and discoverygarden can assist with deployment, design, configuration, migration, and training.
  • It’s a complete solution: back office, repository, and front end, handling content creation, storage, discovery, and digital publication.
  • There’s no software to deploy on client workstations, everything works in the browser.
  • Users learn quickly and enjoy using it so getting staff support for the choice isn’t difficult.
  • For non-profit entities: Islandora’s support of open standards, broad adoption, and open source license mean it’s a technical infrastructure choice grant funding agencies and institutional leaders can get behind.

From the user’s perspective:

  • Islandora is easy to use. All functions are clearly presented, and ingesting, creating, or updating content is done via web forms appropriate to the type of asset being worked on.
  • It’s efficient too: There are tools for automating the creation and maintenance of metadata, and bulk ingestion of object records.
  • Navigating large collections is done via excellent discovery tools with configurable search and object display views.
  • Islandora’s ability to store and create relationships all types of digital assets supports research and enrichment of content in a special way. (I’m a firm believer that better tools lead to better scholarship and richer publications.)
  • Training, information, and support are readily available and they can engage in a large, active user community.

What Islandora is Made Of

The Core Bits

Major components of the Islandora framework are:

  • Drupal, an open source web content management system (CMS),  is the front end of an Islandora instance, handling: page layout (theming), user accounts, menu management, RSS feeds, system administration, and much more using plugins developed by the open source community.
  • Solr, an open source enterprise search platform from the Apache Lucene project, provides full-text search, hit highlighting, faceted search, dynamic clustering, database integration, and rich document (e.g., Word, PDF) handling. 
  • Fedora Commons (Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture) is the open source digital asset management (DAM) architecture upon which the framework is built.

There are many other parts implemented to complete the framework and support the solution packs (more on those shortly) but these are the three core technologies.

How Islandora Stores and Models Content

Islandora stores all information in its repository as Objects:

  • There are three types of Objects: Data Object, Collection Object, Content Model Object.
  • Objects are comprised of Datastreams. These are the parts of an Object, e.g.  a binary image file, a thumbnail, a metadata stream (such as Dublin Core metadata). 
  • A Content Model describes a set of Datastreams that may be used for a particular type of Object.
  • Objects have Relationships with one another. This information is stored in a special Datastream (RELS-EXT) that describes relationships, e.g. what Collection an Object belongs to, what Content Model it subscribes to, and various types of relationships to other Objects.

This model—an implementation of a graph data structure—allows for flexible creation of rich digital resources of disparate types. Picture for instance viewing a TEI transcript of a historical document and at a glance seeing all the relationships to collections and other objects: authority records for place, persons, and events it mentions; images of artwork it discusses; images of the original document. . . hopefully this illustrates the point. 

Solution Packs

As mentioned earlier, Islandora comes with Solution Packs that bundle tools supporting specific types of content and knowledge domains. This elegant solution packages the correct standards support, content models, and related tools (such as viewers) for a given content type into modules that can be associated with a collection. Here’s a sampling: 

  • Standard Image Solution Pack. Enables support for JPEG, PNG and GIF images.
  • Large Image Solution Pack. Enables support for TIFF images.
  • Book Solution Pack. Enables creation of book collections and the ingesting of pages.
  • Newspaper Solution Pack. Adds support for newspaper collections.
  • Paged Content Solution Pack.  Enables support for paged content.
  • PDF Solution Pack. Enables support for PDF documents.
  • Audio Solution Pack. Enables support for WAV and MP3 files.
  • Video Solution Pack. Enables support for the most popular video formats.
  • Binary/File Solution Pack.  Enables support for binary file formats.
  • Entity Solution Pack. Enables support for Event, Place, Person, and Event authority records.
  • Digital Humanities (XML) Solution Pack. Enables support for XML documents with tools for textual criticism, documentary editing, and annotation of documents and their images.
  • Scholar Solution Pack. Enables Institutional repository features such as citations, author pages, etc.

See a complete list here.

Deployment Options and Implementation Strategies

  1. A service company provides you with a hosted instance of Islandora scaled to your requirements deployed on either your own or a hosted infrastructure.
  2. You choose an Islandora OnDemand cloud instance (SaaS), which is quick but has some limitations on how much customization can be performed.
  3. If your organization has its own IT resources with supporting infrastructure and skills they can obtain Islandora from github and configure an instance for you.

Both #1 and #2 come with maintenance provisions so your instance is always up-to-date with the latest releases of Islandora (usually with new functionality). # 3 requires your IT resources to maintain your instance. 

As with deployment you can choose handle as much of your setup as you have resources for. We are available to consult, help with design, configuration, migration, and training. You can contact us here ;). 

Last Words (for Now)

For all it does there are features and improvements to be added to Islandora but I’m confident they will come. That inevitability is a part of its plan. The active user base and an eager development team managed by discoverygarden have great communication and a strong desire to expand and improve Islandora. My own experience has been that feature requests are given proper consideration and if viable move through the development pipeline pretty quickly. Support is always available when needed. 

Questions? Want to see how some of your own content would appear in Islandora? Or just want to play in some sandbox instances to give it a try? Feel free to contact us.


  1. “About Islandora” and “Islandora Foundation.” Islandora Foundation. Accessed January 28, 2015.
  2. “Modules and Solution Packs.” Discoverygarden. Accessed January 28, 2015.
  3. Perkins, Stephen. “Infoset and Islandora: Transforming Digital Editions.” Presentation, 2014.
  4. “Islandora.” Islandora Documentation. Accessed January 29, 2015.
  5. "Open Archival Information System." Wikipedia. Accessed January 28, 2015.
  6. Lavoie, Brian. "The Open Archival Information System Reference Model: Introductory Guide." In Technology Watch Report. Dublin, OH: Office of Research OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 2004.