Article topic: Research and Development, Projects

Creating a flexible authorization system

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Our collaborators from the Footprints project often present our development team with challenging requirements. We’ve taken on and solved complex issues such as storing fragmentary data and sorting uncertain and approximate dates.

Another challenging request from our partners was motivated by the desire to expand our contributor pool. From the project’s inception, adding Footprints and related metadata simply required authentication, but only the core team were given login credentials. The team decided to expand editor access, carefully.

Here’s the dream list of user roles:

  • Creator: Add and edit own Footprints, Imprints & Literary Works. Connect Footprints to Imprints & Literary Works.
  • Contributor: Creator, plus ability to edit all Footprints, Imprints & Literary Works.
  • Moderator: Contributor, plus access to the moderation interface.
  • SuperModerator: Moderator, plus batch import, plus delete permissions, plus user role administration.


Authorizing access at the model/class level was straightforward. The implementation relies heavily on the Django Permission & Authorization classes to control CRUD operations.

Four Django groups were created: Creator, Contributor, Moderator, Supermoderator. Creators and Contributors can add and change the core footprints.main.models. Moderators get those permissions plus a custom can_moderate permission. SuperModerators get all that plus delete permissions. New users are automatically added as Creators, and are given additional privileges as they gain experience with the system.

These groups and permissions were then used to control access at the view and REST API level.

  • Mixins derived from PermissionRequiredMixin were used to enforce the rules at the view level. For example, the AddChangeAccessMixin requires add and change permissions to the core footprints.main.models. Access could be granted more granularly, i.e. a view that changes only the Place model could require only the add_place, change_place permissions. But at this point, the more granular access seems overly complicated and unnecessary.

  • Access to the REST API was easily added via the Django REST Framework’s DjangoModelPermissionsOrAnonReadOnly class. This class was added as Footprint’s DEFAULT_PERMISSION_CLASS.

Instance-level access

The Django permission model is excellent, but does not handle instance-level permissioning. Limiting the Creator role’s edit ability to their own Footprints, Imprints and Written Works was more difficult and is still less than elegant. Each model instance now holds a created_by attribute that stores the request.user at creation time. A can_edit template variable shows/hides edit controls based on the user’s role. I’m still thinking through a better way to handle this requirement. The django-guardian library does offer instance-level permissioning and needs a closer look.


Since implemented, this authorization solution has hummed along with few issues. We have almost 70 creators and contributors. And, we’re celebrating the 5,000th Footprint in our system.

The Project

The Footprints project is a collaboration among Dr. Marjorie Lehman, associate professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS); Michelle Chesner, Jewish Studies Librarian at Columbia University; Dr. Adam Shear, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh; Dr. Joshua Teplitsky, assistant professor at Stony Brook University; and the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The product of this collaboration is a website designed to trace the movements of early modern Jewish books by way of analyzing evidence of provenance from around the world. CTL designed and developed a pilot database, administrative interface, and front-end browsing interface for the Footprints website, in partnership with the research team.

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