Is Cloud Storage a Good Idea for Libraries?
Libraries have long been in the business of mass information storage. They collect it, provide access to it, and preserve it over the long-term. Information does not exist in a physical sense so it requires something else with a physical form to contain it. For example, information can be carved on clay tablets, printed on paper, rendered visually on photographic film, or it may exist as a structured series of on and off electrical states on the surface of a computer hard disk.
Because of this, the mass storage of information in libraries is always a matter of concern and something that has to be carefully managed. Buildings only contain so much space so there is always a maximum limit on how much information can be stored within a library, with the nature of the physical media containing the information being the primary determining factor. In recent years the advances in computer technology have made it possible to store and preserve previously unimaginable amounts of information in a given physical space. The total amount of information that used to require a very large building can now be contained on computer disks in one equipment rack in one corner of one small room. While this has seemingly solved the space problem, what has actually happened is a shift in the nature of the problem.
All of the computer technology required to manage immense quantities of information in electronic form is expensive, it requires a great deal of constant care and feeding, and it takes highly skilled and knowledgeable people who are experts in both libraries and computer technology to maintain. What used to be a simple matter of a library employee putting an item on a shelf in its proper place and forgetting about it until it was needed again has become an exercise in technical complexity which demands constant attention.
Enter the idea of cloud storage.
Cloud storage has been around for a while now but has yet to gain widespread adoption. The idea is that instead of investing money and people in building and running your own in-house electronic information storage, you pay an outside third party to do it for you. Instead of saving your electronic information on your own hard drives in your own facility, you send your information out over the network, usually over the Internet, to some geographically remote location owned by someone else.
There are a number of practical advantages to cloud storage that makes it attractive. You no longer have to worry with purchasing, maintaining, upgrading, protecting, and staffing for all the computer technology required to support the mass storage of electronic information. All these worries are instantly transferred to a cloud storage provider the moment you sign a contract with them.
There are some practical disadvantages to cloud storage as well that have to be considered. It is slow and so not suitable for storing data that must be constantly and quickly accessed. You would not want to store your live library catalog database in the cloud for example. There is the matter of trust. You would be putting something very valuable in the hands of strangers with little to go on but their promises and reputation that they will take care of your information as well as you would have yourself. And there is the fact that cloud storage technology is not fully mature and so still requires a lot of development before it will realize its full potential, especially in regard to the needs of libraries.
While so far it appears that answering the question of whether or not cloud storage is a good idea for libraries seems like any other technology decision where you weigh the pros and cons and come out with an answer, I believe there is one other more philosophical, and potentially controversial, issue that libraries first need to address before considering the practical issues. As I have already said, libraries have long been in the business of collecting, providing access to, storing, and preserving information. If current trends continue, an increasing percentage of the total amount of information libraries contain will be in electronic form. If the day comes when almost all of the information contained within libraries is in electronic form, and if libraries then choose to stop storing and preserving this electronic information themselves and instead push it out to cloud storage, will that have the unintended consequence of diminishing the importance of libraries? We will still be collecting and organizing and providing access, but we will have voluntarily put ourselves out of the business of storing and preserving information.
On the other hand, maybe this is not really a problem. Perhaps the definition of what a library is simply needs to change. Do we continue being libraries only if we store and preserve information by our own hands? Or can we still be libraries regardless of where the information resides or who does the hands-on work with it?
David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head, Library Technology Services at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. firstname.lastname@example.org