Libraries Turn to Cloud Computing for Storage Needs

Through cloud-based services, libraries find new ways to serve patrons.

By Jacob Gedetsis

By Jacob Gedetsis January 23, 2020

The world of libraries and librarians is filled with tired clichés. Surrounded by piles of old volumes, a disapproving librarian loudly shushes anyone making more than a peep. Stacks of books upon stacks of books. Quiet airless places.

It’s an image that librarians and libraries are desperate to shake. And cloud computing may help them do that.

“We aren’t getting out of the book business, but now we are providing new ways to access information,” said New York Public Library president Anthony Marx to Fast Company magazine.

In recent decades, the role of libraries has changed dramatically within communities. Patrons can now check out books and suits for job interviews or cake pans for baking. It’s where many come to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Libraries are also changing to reflect the digitally-focused world they serve. Massive card catalogs are replaced with growing digital ones, and some offer classes for patrons to learn more about personal cloud storage.

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Universities, too, are changing the names of their library science programs to include “information science.” The world has changed, and libraries are changing with it.

Books in the Cloud

With this refocused attention to digital archives, libraries struggle with the same storage costs problems that the private sector faces. IT costs are expensive, and hard data storage solutions add up. Like the public sector, libraries are turning to cloud-based solutions to manage their data storage needs.

At the highest level, the Library of Congress recently announced a hybrid cloud storage approach to its digital infrastructure. 

“We’re looking at making sure that we have a variety of storage capacities, and that includes both the cloud and physical storage capacities,” said Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress in an interview with MeriTalk.

Libraries are leveraging cloud capabilities for more than simply cutting data storage costs. They’re also trying to match their patrons’ needs. Researchers, academics and everyday library patrons flock to libraries for their immense amount of free data.

In October, the Library of Congress was awarded a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud (CCHC) project. With the grant support, researchers will pilot ways to combine technology and the collections of the largest library in the world to support digital research at scale.

“As technology advances, we envision a future in which all users – researchers, artists, students and more – are only limited by the questions they can think to ask; where scale, complexity, uniqueness, and speed are aligned to support their goals and result in fundamentally transformed ways of understanding the world around us,” said Kate Zwaard, the Library’s Director of Digital Strategy in a press release.

Many of the open source databases, digital archives, and subject catalogs provided to patrons run off Software-as-Service and Platform-as-Service infrastructures. This allows libraries to gain the benefits of these applications without having to worry about IT maintenance or local hosting.

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University libraries have harnessed the power of desktops as services (DaaS). DaaS streams applications to and from a central location to client devices like desktop computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Schools use digital desktops to customize students’educational experience while cutting costs. 

Colleges like the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the University of Arkansas and Creighton University saw a decrease in the use of their traditional computer labs while the costs to maintain them skyrocketed. Through cloud-powered DaaS, students can access the applications they need, and the university doesn’t have to pay for software to be downloaded on every desktop in the library. Public cloud service providers like Amazon and Google have both partnered with public and academic libraries in recent years to provide scalable infrastructure at a cheap price point.

The New York Public Library, the largest public library system in America, utilizes Amazon’s AWS. Easily scalable projects that once took years now take weeks or months. Approximately 80 NYPL websites provide 700,000 public access images to patrons for free.

In the early 2000s, Google launched its Google Books project. It was an ambitious program, ultimately derailed by legal battles, that aimed to scan the world’s books into the largest digital library ever collected. From the ashes of that program came Google’s Library Project, which partners with university libraries to scan rare and out-of-print books. If the book enters the public domain it is then available on Google Books.

More Savings, Better Security 

Bob Price, Associate Dean of Technology and Digital Strategies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s J. Murrey Atkins Library, credits the library’s move to cloud-storage with a huge savings and increased data security.

“If I have a hardware failure, I can take that server down and bring it back on brand-new hardware almost instantaneously,” said Price in an interview with EdTech. “If some disaster strikes the East Coast, we can bring all our infrastructure back up on the West Coast in less than 15 minutes.”

For thousands of years, libraries have been repositories of our collective knowledge. Andrew Carnegie called them “palaces for the people.” Now, as libraries continue to grow in the digital space, they’re turning to cloud-based solutions.

Through a commitment to the changing digital world, libraries aim to continue that mission into the future. And cloud computing is helping take them there.

Jacob Gedetsis is a contributing writer. His work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Post Standard and The Plain Dealer, among others. Find him on Twitter @JacobGedetsis.

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