Backbone, The Primer: Models and Collections


This is the second of four posts that guest author Greg MacWilliam has put together for Data Community DC: Backbone, The Primer. For more details about the API and an overview, please go back to the Introduction.

Usings Models

First, let's build a single model that manages data for Kermit. We know that Kermit's REST endpoint is "/muppets/1" (ie: /muppets/:id, and Kermit's id is "1"). Configured as a Backbone model, Kermit looks like this:

var KermitModel = Backbone.Model.extend({ url: '/muppets/1', defaults: { id: null, name: null, occupation: null } });

Kermit's model does two things:

  • It defines a RESTful URL for his model to sync with, and…
  • It defines default attributes for his model. Default attributes are useful for representing API data composition within your front-end code. Also, these defaults guarentee that your model is always fully formed, even before loading its data from ther server.

However, what IS that KermitModel object? When you extend a Backbone component, you always get back a constructor function. That means we need to create an instance of the model before using it:

var kermit = new KermitModel(); kermit.fetch().then(function() { kermit.get('name'); // >> "Kermit" kermit.get('occupation'); // >> "being green" kermit.set('occupation', 'muppet leader');; });

After creating a new instance of our Kermit model, we call fetch to have it load data from its REST endpoint. Calling fetch returns a promise object, onto which we can chain success and error callbacks. In the above example, we perform some basic actions on our model after loading it. Commonly used Model methods include:

  • fetch: fetches the model's data from its REST service using a GET request.
  • get: gets a named attribute from the model.
  • set: sets values for named model attributes (without saving to the server).
  • save: sets attributes, and then saves the model data to the server using a PUT request.
  • destroy: decomissions the model, and removes it from the server using a DELETE request.

Using Collections

Collections handle the loading and management of a list of models. We must first define a Model class for the list's items, and then attach that model class to a managing collection:

var MuppetModel = Backbone.Model.extend({ defaults: { id: null, name: null, occupation: null } }); var MuppetCollection = Backbone.Collection.extend({ url: '/muppets' model: MuppetModel });

In the above example, MuppetsCollection will load data from the "/muppets" list endpoint. It will then construct the loaded data into a list of MuppetModel instances.

To load our collection of Muppet models, we build a collection instance and then call fetch:

var muppets = new MuppetCollection(); muppets.fetch().then(function() { console.log(muppets.length); // >> length: 1 });

Easy, right? However, there's a problem here: our collection only created a single model. We were supposed to get back a list of two items. Let's review again what the GET /muppets/ service returns…

{ "total": 2, "page": 1, "perPage": 10, "muppets": [ { "id": 1, "name": "Kermit", "occupation": "being green" }, { "id": 2, "name": "Gonzo", "occupation": "plumber" } ] }

We can see that this list data does indeed contain two records, however our collection only created one model instance. Why? The reason is beacuse Collections are derived from Arrays, while Models are derived from Objects. In this case, our root data structure is an Object (not an Array), so our collection tried to parse the returned data directly into a model.

What we really want is for our collection to populate its list from the "muppets" array property of the returned data object. To address this, we simply add a parse method onto our collection:

var MuppetCollection = Backbone.Collection.extend({ url: '/muppets' model: MuppetModel, parse: function(data) { return data.muppets; } });

A Collection's parse method recieves raw data loaded from REST services, and may return a specific portion of that data to be loaded into the collection. In Backbone, both Models and Collections support the definition of a parse method. Using parse is very useful for reconciling minor differences between your API design and your front-end application architecture (which often times won't map one-to-one, and that's okay!).

With the parse method in place, the following now happens upon fetching the collection:

var muppets = new MuppetCollection(); muppets.fetch().then(function() { console.log(muppets.length); // >> length: 2 }); muppets.get(1); // >> Returns the "Kermit" model, by id reference muppets.get(2); // >> Returns the "Gonzo" model, by id reference; // >> Returns the "Kermit" model, by index muppets.findWhere({name: 'Gonzo'}); // >> returns the "Gonzo" model

Success! The returned list of Muppets were parsed as expected into a collection of MuppetModel instances, and the Collection provided some basic methods for querying them. Commonly used Collection methods include:

  • fetch: fetches the collection's data from its REST service using a GET request.
  • create: adds a new model into the collection, and creates it at the API via POST.
  • add: adds a new model into the collection without telling the API.
  • remove: removes a model from the collection without telling the API.
  • get: gets a model from the collection by id reference.
  • at: gets a model from the collection by index.
  • find: finds all records matching a specific search criteria.

Backbone CRUD

Create, Read, Update, and Destroy are the four major data interactions that an application must manage. Backbone Models and Collections work closely together to delegate these roles. Infact, the relationship of Models and Collections (not so coincidentally) mirrors the design of a RESTful API. To review:

var MuppetModel = Backbone.Model.extend({ defaults: { id: null, name: null, occupation: null } }); var MuppetCollection = Backbone.Collection.extend({ url: '/muppets' model: MuppetModel });

Notice above that the model class does NOT define a url endpoint to sync with. This is because models within a collection will automatically construct their url reference as "[collection.url]/[]". This means that after fetching the collection, our Kermit model (with an id of "1") will automatically be configured to sync with a url of "/muppets/1".


Use Collection.create to POST new data to a list endpoint. The API should return complete data for the new database record, including its assigned id. The new model is created immediately within the front-end collection.

muppetsList.create({name: 'Piggy', occupation: 'fashionista'});


Use Collection.fetch or Model.fetch to load data via GET. For models, you'll generally only need to call fetch for models without a parent collection.

kermit.fetch(); muppetsList.fetch();


Use to PUT updated data for a model. The model's complete data is sent to the API.'occupation', 'being awesome');


Use Model.destroy to DELETE a model instance. The model will remove itself from any parent collection, and issue a DELETE request to the API.



Some API designs may also support using the PATCH method to perform partial model updates (where only modified data attributes are sent to the API). This design is less common, however can be achieved in Backbone by calling and passing a {patch: true} option.'occupation', 'being awesome', {patch: true});

Binding Events

Backbone also provides a best-of-class Events framework. The major differentiator of Backbone Events is the support for context passing, or, specifing what this refers to when an event handler is triggered:

target.on(event, handler, context), handler, context) target.trigger(event)

The other key feature of the Backbone Events framework are the inversion-of-control event binders:

this.listenTo(target, event, handler) this.stopListening()

These reverse event binders make life easier by quickly releasing all of an object's bound events, thus aiding memory management. As a general rule, objects with a shorter lifespan should listen to objects with a longer lifespan, and clean up their own event references when deprecated.

Model & Collection Events

You may bind event handlers onto any model or collection (optionally passing in a handler context):

kermit.on('change', function() { // do stuff... }, this);

Commonly tracked Model events include:

  • "change": triggered when the value of any model attribute changes.
  • "change:[attribute]": triggered when the value of the named attribute changes.
  • sync: called when the model completes a data exchange with the API.

Commonly tracked Collection events include:

  • "add": triggered when a model is added to the collection.
  • "remove": triggered when a model is removed from the collection.
  • "reset": triggered when the collection is purged with a hard reset.
  • "sync": triggered when the collection completes a data exchange with the API.
  • [model event]: all child model events are proxied by their parent collection.

Review Backbone's catalog of built-in events for all available event triggers.

About the Author

Greg MacWilliam is an RIT alumni, currently working as a freelance web software engineer. He specializes in single-page application architecture and API design. He's worked for organizations including the National Park Service and NPR, and has taught JavaScript at the Art Institute of Washington. Greg has self-published several online games, and actively contributes to BackboneJS projects.

Greg's current side projects include the Backbone extensions EpoxyJS and ContainerView, as well as ConstellationJS for grid geometry operations.

You can follow him on Twitter and Github: