Towards a Library in the Cloud

From Jeff Kahn

It goes without saying that the library is changing in the new age of digital content; after all, libraries have led the way with cloud computing, moving content to remote storage before we had such a cute term for it. As colleges and universities become increasingly (or entirely) digital and cloud based, we’re beginning to see the broader implications for faculty, administration and librarians. With digital content accessible from anywhere, the traditional library may be going the way of the reference book.

Let’s take a look at how the university library is evolving and what that means for different university staff members.

The web has displaced the very idea of what constitutes a library, let alone a first-class library. It can no longer be defined by the number and type of books it holds—in fact, I doubt a library’s primary location will be a physical one.

The doomed print encyclopedia is a useful example. Traditionally, librarians have been responsible for purchasing sets of encyclopedias every few years. This makes them the gatekeeper for reference materials, the library a storage unit for large sets of books and the institution responsible for a large, infrequent expenditure.

However, we’re quickly adopting a pay-per-view model that depends on content stored remotely. This has implications for how institutions purchase content and the role of librarians. Though funding issues vary from school to school, librarians—whether at your local public library or at a large university—are becoming information sherpas, guiding faculty and students through the deluge of multimedia content.

With easy access to digital authoring and media production tools, faculty are creating an increasing amount of that content. They will depend on the library to manage and store that content, while still depending on the library to discover materials. This puts a burden on libraries and librarians to catalog and sort an ever-increasing variety of educational content for teaching and learning.

The move towards a virtual library raises questions for administration and IT departments, as well. Administrators now have to think about libraries as a place to store and access educational content beyond the lifespan of any one LMS or tool. Plus, IT staff and librarians must begin working closer together on tasks such as standardizing searches and citation, as well as the sticky, complex intellectual copyright issues raised by the web.

Though we all love our stately university libraries, a move towards cloud-based libraries is happening rapidly, with the proliferation of digitized content, quality web-based, licensed content and open educational resources. How do you see the library’s role shifting in terms of content creation, discovery, sharing, distribution and preservation? Sound off in the comments.

One Comment

  1. vieger

    There is no way that university libraries will ever become entirely digital, and this is a incorrect thing to assume. There are far too many items that can not be digitized and widely distributed on the web for a number of reasons. One, there is not enough time, personell, or funding to take on such a huge endeavor. Sure, big guys like Google are stepping in to take the financial burden off some institutions wishing to digitize their collections, however this brings in another huge issue which is that of ownership and copyright of the digital representation of an item. If Google creates the digital copy, then that means the institution doesn’t and therefore has no control over it in the long run. Access for it could be revoked at any time. The same goes for any materials that a library purchases licenses to. As soon as the money stops rolling in, the vendor will stop access to all content, even the content that was already paid for. Additionally, there are just too many items in the world that will never get digitized. There are so many archival items, such as old photographs, books, clothing, etc etc dispersed in archival libraries or museums throughout the world, that there is no way to digitize it all. It would take an indefinite amount of time to actually pull something like this off. Some things can’t be digitized because it would ruin or deteriorate it further, such as certain types of film. Some things will never be digitized because they have yet to be discovered. Some libraries and archives have too many items to even know what is in individual collections that they house. All of this takes time, money and very specific knowledge. Even if an item is digitized, if the individual digitizing it does not have the correct knowledge about the item, they are likely to not provide meaningful metadata or cataloging of the item, meaning item discovery online would be impossible for those who are actually looking for such an item. This defeats the purpose of digitization and online dissemination of information objects completely.

    Secondly, even if items are digitized, that does not mean that there isn’t still a place for the physical library. Ask yourself – if items are digitized, where do they go then? Do you just throw them away? Of course not! And especially not in the case of rare and archival materials. Regardless of their availability on the web, they still have to be housed somewhere. Digitizing is not a means to take away the need of the physical library, it is simply a means to provide future access to a broader public, especially those who would never have access to the item without that digital representation.

    With that being said, think of all of the scholars worldwide that would not be able to complete the same level of scholarship without having these tangible items to examine and research. No digital scan will be able to really show you the rare type of paper, the ink used, the leather or binding in a very unique copy of a book.

    So, sure, the role is changing within the library profession, but libraries are not going away, and they are certainly not going to become entirely digital. Libraries will of course have to continually adapt to the growing number of learners that wish to communicate and learn online, but I think many libraries are addressing this and are trying to make their spaces more social, modern and approachable.

    When I see the modern library, I see their role changing to a hub for new innovations and technology. They will become a place where students can meet to collaborate using the latest tools, technology and resources at their disposal. Developing an important role within the LMS and continuing to advance online services for online learners is essential, however I think you are leaving out the population of students who do not use the LMS, who live on or close to campus, and who frequent the physical space of the library for research, social needs, collaboration, curiosity, etc.

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