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Friday, 4 November 2011

Libraries in the clouds?

By Richard Beharilal

Cloud computing can transform the way systems are built and services delivered, providing libraries with an opportunity to extend their impact. Anyone connected to the Internet is probably using some type of cloud computing on a regular basis - whether using Google’s Gmail, organizing photos on Flickr or searching the Web with Bing - you are engaged in Cloud computing!

What is it?
Cloud computing is a communally-shared resource that is leased on a metered basis, paying for as little or as much as needed, when needed. Cloud computing allows for needs which could include software applications, storing data, accessing computing power, or using a platform to build applications.

Through Web 2.0 applications, library users and librarians have already shifted much of their personal computer usage to the cloud. There is also a trend by users to free their bookmarks from the desktop by storing them on social bookmarking websites such as Delicious; upload and share videos on YouTube; use services such as Slideshare to host presentations; work collaboratively on Google Docs; and adopt web-based email services such as Gmail - some may even have designed applications for popular platforms such as Facebook. The flexibility and scalability of cloud computing means that virtual clouds can form and dissipate as often as real clouds, depending on the interests and demands of end users. Cost savings, flexibility and innovation, broad, general IT skills vs. deep, specialized skills are just some of the implications of using cloud computing.

Libraries in the clouds?
Libraries will want to consider what types of information or processes they want to trust to the cloud. There are ethical and practical considerations; should sensitive information such as patron records be stored in the cloud where privacy is questionable? But - it needn’t be an all-or-nothing decision as libraries may choose to continue to host some of their own systems, while using the cloud for less sensitive processes such as hosting library websites, or storing and accessing bibliographic data. Internationally, many libraries have already begun to adopt cloud services to alleviate their IT departments and increase efficiency.

In the near future, UKZN Library may have to adopt computing resources and services that it does not own in order to provide new and innovative services. Cloud computing and Web collaboration are two major concepts that underlie new and innovative developments in library automation. The growing internet usage among library users and the time these users spend on the internet has made it imperative that libraries offer their services online. Users of information have more attractive ways of finding information than using the traditional library. Today, library users are accessing the information needed from the comfort and security of their homes or in their own personal or customized spaces. To meet their needs, can UKZN library adopt the communication and information tools and services that users are accustomed to? Many of these tools and services will not be owned by UKZN library but are necessary to carry out the work of making library collections and services known and accessible to users.

The potential for collaboration between libraries is truly ground-breaking in a cloud environment. When data and functions are shared in the cloud, libraries can make joint decisions on collection development, preservation and digitization in real time. As demonstrated by OCLC’s QuestionPoint virtual reference service and its 24/7 cooperative - a single libraries’ ability to assist patrons is expanded beyond the constraint of its own walls and hours of operation to become a true cloud service (last year QuestionPoint logged its five millionth answer to a reference question).

Key questions on Cloud Computing as an option for UKZN Library
The major question is whether UKZN Library is able to take the opportunity to improve their services and relevance in today’s information society? Cloud computing is one avenue for this move into the future. It can bring several benefits for libraries and give them a different future. The cooperative effect of libraries using the same, shared hardware, services and data—rather than hosting hardware and software on behalf of individual libraries—can result in lowering the total costs of managing library collections and enhancing the both library user’s experience and library staff workflows. While local library systems served an important purpose earlier in library automation they now represent a tremendous duplication of effort. Each library builds and maintains a database, buys equipment and installs and updates the software. In fact, some libraries can get stuck in perpetual upgrade mode, which involves lots of testing and retesting and time-consuming customization.

However, should UKZN library consider moving more of their services into the cloud there are certain questions that must be addressed. Foremost is whether this service will make the library more efficient and help it offer a better service to its constituency?

Interesting cloud computing links


Beck, A. (2007), ‘‘Google lures MySpace for social network platform’’, November,
Hartig, K. (2008), ‘‘What is cloud computing?’’, Cloud Computing Journal,
Goldner, Matt. (2010), Winds of Change: Libraries and Cloud Computing.
Scale, Mark-Shane E. (2009), Cloud computing and collaboration, Library Hi Tech News, Volume 26 Number 9, pp. 10-13.