The challenge

University libraries are increasingly looking to pool their physical and online learning resources and facilities, for a variety of reasons:

  • Cost of electronic resources
  • An increase in home learning, where the closest university might be different to the student’s registered institution
  • Growth of interdisciplinary study programs, often delivered between two or more academic institutions
  • Universities developing specialisms, becoming centres of excellence in themed areas, and building up large collections of resources
  • Lack of space on library shelves

To enable this collaborative approach, universities form partnerships known as “federations”. Institutions within a federation may agree to allow students from other universities in the group to use and borrow resources. Whilst this may seem a simple aim, in practice it presents difficulties around the tracking and controlling of which students have access to what, and for how long. 

The Technical University (TU) of Darmstadt in Germany is teaming up with other universities in their DFN federation to share library learning resources. At present, when a student borrows resources from a partnering university library they must use an account and chip card issued by that university to validate themselves. As a result, each student may end up with several library cards. Besides being an inconvenience for the individual, the overhead of managing accounts for students from other universities and issuing these users with chip cards is resource intensive and uneconomical for the institutions involved.

Ideally each student would be able to use their home library account to access what they need at any of the collaborating libraries. It is with this goal in mind that the University and State Library Darmstadt (ULB) of the TU Darmstadt approached Knowledge Integration. They asked if we would build a prototype to answer two questions.

  • How might a student’s home university account be used to authenticate them when accessing another university’s resources?
  • Given that the FOLIO library management platform is in use at many universities, could FOLIO be used to manage authentication?

What we delivered

The project had a core goal: to enable FOLIO to use a federation for authentication. FOLIO already had a sign-in module so we extended it, rather than replace it, to allow the existing user community to benefit from the new features. A review of the module revealed that it lacked three essential pieces of functionality, the ability to: 

  • Automatically create FOLIO user accounts for first time users when external authentication is successful. We extended the administrator interface so that accounts can now be automatically created using the details from the DFN identity provider
  • Consume identity provider metadata from a federation, rather than just a single institution. We developed a metadata consumer to process data from the DFN federation. Additionally, because the federation contains hundreds of identity providers, we built a user interface to allow an administrator to select and configure which identity providers should be able to authenticate and create accounts in FOLIO
  • Allow the user to select which institution they would like to authenticate with. At the time, FOLIO had no patron-facing functionality, the only users of the system were administrators, never students. We needed to be able to present instructions and help text to students and also to be able to test the new login page. In response to this we developed a means of presenting publicly available pages in FOLIO

The FedAccs proof of concept was completed and delivered successfully and is now available for use as a base by any organisation with a need to incorporate federated authentication into their FOLIO installation. The source code is available in ULB-Darmstadt’s public FedAccs github repository.

More detail about this project can be found in our blog article FedAccs delivers federated authentication to FOLIO.


TU Darmstadt and K-Int would like to thank the Innovation Fund of the Hessian Ministry of Science and the Arts for funding the project.

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