It is Time for Libraries to Get Out of the Server Business
Many libraries, especially public and academic libraries, have been in the business of running their own in-house servers since they automated their catalogs and created their own Web sites. This made sense, as there were few if any other options. Having their own servers made it easier to learn and experiment, to constantly improve and create new server-based library services, and to exert total and complete ownership and control over the technology and the services they enabled.
Now, and even more so as we move into the future, this no longer makes as much sense. Server hardware, people with the skills to expertly manage it, and the special electrical, network, cooling and other requirements of a server room are expensive. Library users, such as the students at my library at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are demanding more and more space for individual and group work. It is getting harder to justify devoting library space to equipment. Perhaps of greatest importance is the simple fact that libraries are libraries and not IT shops.
This is not to say that libraries have no role in technology experimentation and development. I believe libraries, such as academic libraries staffed by faculty who are tasked to do research as well as run a library, will always have a crucial role to play in this area. Computers are not just for computer scientists, but for information scientists as well. But I consider such research work a separate thing from the day-to-day operational aspect of what keeps a library open for business and its online services up and running.
What are the available options then to enable a library to get out of the business of running its own in-house servers? There are several. Academic libraries can look to their campus IT. Public libraries can look to their local government IT. Many library system vendors offer hosted options in “the cloud.” There are also commercial options such as RackSpace or MidPhase. Perhaps only one of these will meet all the needs of any given library, but it is more likely that some mix of two or more will be needed to provide the best overall solution.
There is no question that making such a significant change is not to be taken lightly. It requires giving up the complete and total control over library servers that has been taken for granted in the past. It also requires putting trust in others outside the library. But imagine the benefits of having technical faculty and staff fully devoted to working on the systems and services that make a library valuable to its users.
David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Head of Systems at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. firstname.lastname@example.org