Macalester College

Macalester College enables full access to HathiTrust Digital Library with OpenAthens

At a Glance

Macalester College
St. Paul, Minnesota

Institution Type:   Academic Libraries
Related Products:   OpenAthens

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Macalester College is a small liberal arts college located in St. Paul, Minnesota. To support the curricular and research needs of its 2,136 students and 184 full-time faculty members, the DeWitt Wallace Library maintains a collection of more than 832,132 items including 326,620 print books, 186,066 e-books, 319,215 e-journals and 231 subscription databases. In 2017, the Wallace Library became the first institution in the world to use OpenAthens, a single sign-on software solution for identity management, to enable full access to the HathiTrust Digital Library via the InCommon Federation.


In December 2016, the DeWitt Wallace Library joined HathiTrust, a partnership of academic and research institutions that offers a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. However, to enjoy full access to HathiTrust’s content, the DeWitt Wallace Library would need to implement a SAML 2.0 identity provider compatible with the InCommon Federation, a U.S. education and research identity management federation.

“We joined HathiTrust knowing that we did not have all the pieces in place to be able to log in to the HathiTrust website,” explained Katy Gabrio, Assistant Library Director for Collection Development and Discovery. “People could freely access the HathiTrust content that was in the public domain, but they weren’t able to take advantage of all the functionality that partner libraries are given once they’re able to authenticate.” These advantages included the ability to download full PDFs, build collection lists, and access special services (for users with print disabilities).

To enable full access to HathiTrust, the library needed to find an alternative to EZproxy, Macalester College’s existing authentication solution. HathiTrust does not support access via IP-based proxy servers because, according to its website, they are “slower, more complex” and may impede an institution’s ability to ensure compliance with terms of use, third-party agreements and other materials restrictions.

Gabrio and the college IT staff first investigated the feasibility of implementing Shibboleth, a SAML 2.0 identity solution popular among academic institutions in North America. However, “we would have to hire a consultant or contractor to implement Shibboleth and to support it moving forward,” Gabrio said. “Based on the quotes we received, the cost of doing that was a major roadblock for us.”


A fortuitous meeting with EBSCO’s Christopher Holly, Director of SaaS Innovation, and EBSCO Regional Sales Manager Jaye Hess presented Gabrio with another option: OpenAthens, a fully hosted identity and access management service.

“I reached out to HathiTrust to ask them if they’d be willing to explore this possibility with us,” Gabrio explained. “I knew that we would need them on board to help us figure out if it would really work.”

HathiTrust agreed, and the project to implement OpenAthens began in earnest during the summer of 2017. The implementation team included Gabrio, the college’s IT staff, and representatives from EBSCO, OpenAthens and HathiTrust.

“We had one big phone call to talk through how we were going to proceed,” Gabrio said, adding that communication among all parties involved was superb and resulted in a smooth implementation. “Having all those different people from the organizations that were involved was extremely helpful to make sure we were all on the same page and heading in the same direction,” she said. “It was great to see the willingness to work together. That was key to our being able to move forward and be successful.”

Benefits & Results

Now that OpenAthens is enabling library users to seamlessly authenticate into HathiTrust, Gabrio and her colleagues are looking to implement OpenAthens for other library e-resources, including its discovery layer.

“The admin side of OpenAthens is a lot more user-friendly than EZproxy, which is appealing when you have a smaller IT staff,” Gabrio explained. “Anything we can do to take something off their plates that also works well for us is a win.”

Seamless access to HathiTrust has also helped the DeWitt Wallace Library become more efficient in other areas. For example, when interlibrary loan requests come in, library staff members now have the option to direct users to the HathiTrust environment, where they can download the PDF version to their preferred devices.

“They no longer have to wait to get the item from another library; they get that instant gratification,” Gabrio said. “We’re able to more quickly meet the needs of our community members.”

Gabrio also expects that OpenAthens will help the library simplify its statistics-gathering process. Right now, librarians collect usage data from several different platforms.

“OpenAthens could help us streamline that process or be another stream of data that we can include in our decision-making processes,” she said. “OpenAthens statistics would definitely benefit us in evaluating resources moving forward.”

Gabrio hopes Macalester College’s success in implementing OpenAthens will inspire other libraries that may wish to join HathiTrust but haven’t done so because they lack the resources to implement Shibboleth.

“Having enhanced access to the HathiTrust environment is huge,” she said. “We have heard from a few faculty [members] that they are very thankful that we figured out a solution.”

Having all those different people from the organizations that were involved was extremely helpful to make sure we were all on the same page and heading in the same direction. It was great to see the willingness to work together. That was key to our being able to move forward and be successful.

Katy Gabrio
Assistant Library Director for Collection Development and Discovery
Macalester College

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