Bright future for libraries in the cloud

Share this on social media:


Siân Harris looks at what role cloud-based services play in libraries today, their benefits and limitations and what challenges remain


For Tom Shaw, associate director for digital innovation and open research at Lancaster University in the UK, the cloud is 'absolutely fundamental to the way we operate as a library and has been for a number of years'. 

He said that, in addition to the collections hosted on vendor platforms, with most of the library’s systems and software, the university has taken a strategic decision to use a software as a service approach. This includes using Alma as the main library system, Primo as the discovery tool and other cloud-hosted services. Only a few, more bespoke library services are hosted at the university and even these are on central university servers, not in the library.

Such an approach has become increasingly common over the past decade or so, but why has the cloud become a key part of many libraries?

'We see real advantages in terms of reducing the resourcing implications, the technical overheads of running things ourselves in-house,' Shaw explained. 'With Alma, for instance, we pay Ex Libris to run that as a service on our behalf. If it falls over that's a phone call or a ticket we raise with them, which is a much more efficient way of looking at managing risk.

'We just don't have the luxury of large numbers of staff who can do the sorts of things that need doing in a non-cloud environment such as managing hardware and servers, installing patches, upgrading software, as well as doing innovative stuff and building new systems. Cloud has enabled us to free up staffing resource to do the things where we get real impact and real value. And it is also about trying to avoid reinventing the wheel; we can buy something in that usually is better than what we would have built in house.' 

Benefits of scale

Beyond technical capacity and risk, there are benefits of scale with pooling resources, as Matt Hayes, managing director, technology from SAGE (Talis & Lean Library), observed: 'When we think about ‘libraries in the cloud’ at Lean Library and Talis, we think less about the storage benefits and more about improved discovery of all the library has to offer, and the ability to provide added value on the open web, outside the library’s digital or physical infrastructure.'

One example that he shared is that Lean Library aggregates open access databases on behalf of libraries and provides libraries with tools to surface relevant content from these databases when their patrons encounter paywalls online. The tools also enable the library to provide added context to such content, to support their curation and discovery missions. 

'Moving library systems to the cloud would allow for greater interoperability. In that respect, it makes it easier for libraries to deliver their services or resource on third-party websites and platforms – essentially, wherever their users are,' Hayes added. 

Gloria Gonzalez, senior agile product owner at Zepheira, part of EBSCO, had a similar observation: '[Our] Library.Link Network is a cloud-based service that is platform agnostic so it works with any catalogue that libraries use and it transforms their data into a format called BIBFRAME, which allows library data to become decentralised and helps libraries meet their users on the web where they're searching.'

BIBFRAME is a web native standard that allows libraries to publish structured data so that their data is more visible on the web. Gonzalez explained the benefits: 'Previously to this new format being available catalogues don't show up in library searches. They're not indexed by crawlers. In this new format all of that [library] data is open on the web. Indexers can crawl that information and provide access into their search engines. Having the same standards to describe their data makes it easier for libraries to work together to make their data better.'

She added that BIBFRAME data is syndicated directly to partners like Google: 'We launched a borrow option together in 2019 and now people searching in Google, in Australia, the United States and Canada can all find library books near them from the academic and public libraries and national libraries that surround them.' This can be extended to other countries, she continued, once a specific geographical area has enough libraries that are publishing data consistently. 

Beyond Google, decentralising data on the web means libraries can be found anywhere they'd like to meet their community, whether it is faculty websites or community partner websites.

Navigating storm clouds

Of course, this openness can raise concerns for libraries when they are thinking about moving their services and systems to the cloud. 'Once you have your data available on the open web it can really be used for any purpose and so when libraries first approach us they ask about these solutions. They are curious to know very specific use cases because it can seem like there's too many options for what they can do,' observed Gonzalez.

Another concern that has sometimes been raised about moving to the cloud is about ensuring ongoing access to the library’s data.

'We address them through our data preservation and policy plans. So not only are we providing a host service, but we also on behalf of our customers take care of replicating that data and backing it up. So that if there ever were an issue, it could be restored,' Gonzalez noted.

Long-term sustainability of platforms is an issue that Shaw in Lancaster is also following. 'I'm conscious we might be buying something from a vendor who are cloud hosting it but it doesn't necessarily mean they own their own cloud infrastructure. Very likely they're using Amazon Web Services or something similar. It does raise some important questions about what would happen if the cloud provider fell over or decided on taking a very different approach. This is probably something that ought to be a bit more of a consideration as we kind of get deeper into the cloud environment.'

However, he added a counterpoint: 'The other thing is weighing it against the alternative. If we've got IT ourselves on premises, on our servers, you can go and look at racks with spinning disks in and say ‘they're in this room that we've got locked’ but it doesn't necessarily they can't be hacked and aren't vulnerable in some way.'

Clouds and climate

Another aspect of cloud services that has come under increased scrutiny recently is environmental impact.

'Sometimes there is a tendency to think digital means we're not cutting down trees to make print books therefore it's greener. The reality is far more complicated and the carbon impact of the cloud can be quite considerable. It's not just power generation involved in the devices that people are using. There is huge amounts of power generation involved in running cloud data servers and networks. Then there is the question of where that energy comes from, what carbon footprint does it have, how sustainable or renewable are any of the sources powering those,' observed Shaw.

'Lancaster University has declared a climate emergency and across the university we're really being pushed in terms of how we're going to respond and to make that a meaningful statement. It's really pushing us to think more deeply about the impact of things like the cloud. We're going to be engaging more with our vendors and making it a much more usual part of the process to ask questions about how they power their data centres, what work they have done to understand the environmental impacts of cloud for them, and what is their roadmap for reducing the environmental impact of their activities. I'd also like to work with our procurement team to look at how that can become a much larger part of the procurement process.'

Gonzalez agreed about the challenge: 'Especially during the early adoption of cloud-based services, the environmental impact of cloud services was an issue, and it continues to be an issue. We specifically seek out data centres that are on average about three times more efficient than average data centres in the US. Our cloud provider partner is on a path to 100 using 100% renewable energy by 2025.' She added that EBSCO also has an initiative, EBSCO Solar, which provides grants to public libraries so that they can set up solar power for their buildings.

Geography and inequity

Despite the widespread enthusiasm for cloud-based library services, adoption of them is not evenly distributed around the world. Gashaw Kebede, a freelance consultant in information, communication and knowledge management and previously an assistant professor at Addis Ababa University, highlighted the situation in his own country: 'There are no cloud-based library services implemented by the local academic and research libraries in [Ethiopia] (although some of the international organisations located in the country may have some cloud-based library services). And, to my knowledge, there is no concrete plan or public discussions to introduce a cloud-based library services and management by the institutions usually charged with coordinating such a task in the country (e.g., the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia).

'However, moving to a cloud-based library service is obviously among the top priority in the wish list of every academic library in the country. There is an increasing awareness regarding the specific advantages that moving to the cloud-based library services could bring particularly to the improvement of the services and capacity of the ever-increasing academic libraries located in the public universities of the country.'

There are several factors that he sees in this low adoption: 'In my view, moving to cloud-based library services will not be an easy option to consider by the local academic and research libraries at the moment primarily because of: (a) the poor network infrastructure on the ground to connect to the cloud, and (b) the limited digital resources and services owned by the libraries to justify moving to cloud (less than 100,000 e-books exist among the country's 50+ academic libraries). The majority of the academic and research libraries lack sufficient network connections on the ground even to participate fully in the national research and education network (introduced by the government under the name EthERNet in 2000). Adding to this is the perennial financial constraints that the libraries have to give priority to [over] moving to the cloud.'

Kebede believes that, before rolling out many cloud-based services in his country, there is still work to do in strengthening local digital libraries. 'Of course, achieving these will make it easier to move to cloud-based services and other models of service provisions and resource building in the long run,' he observed. 

So, what can vendors of library tools do to help address such challenges, particularly where internet access is less reliable? Gonzalez of EBSCO shared an example of one approach her company has taken with a project in a prison, where access to the wider internet is prohibited: 'We created a local version of our EBSCO Discovery service, so that people who are not connected to the Internet can access their items locally. It is important that we meet all readers, even those who don't have continuous access to the Internet.'

She also acknowledged inequality in the adoption of BIBFRAME. She noted: 'EBSCO helps that issue by making it as easy as possible for people to use this standard. The library sends us their catalogue data and we do the entire transformation and publication for them. Their staff doesn't have to learn the ins and outs of the standard before they get access.'

Observing that language can be a barrier too, she added that EBSCO is working to translate the standard documentation into other languages, working, for example, with libraries in South America and the National Library of Qatar, to translate standard documentation to Spanish and Arabic. She continued: 'Our transformation pipeline that we use to publish this data is completely script and language agnostic; if the data is in a certain language, then we preserve that when we publish the data.'

In addition, there is a need to recognise that standards have evolved differently around the world. 'The MARC standard has many different flavours around the world and so we're also expanding our services to work with all versions.' 

So what does the future hold for libraries in the cloud? 'In five or 10 years’ time I see library catalogues and catalogue data as being completely decentralised. Libraries won't be sharing data based on record systems, but instead they will be able to share more granular pieces of data, for example descriptions of a particular person or publisher or topic. That will enable libraries to expand the power of their data sharing, to understand what they have in common and what is unique to their collections,' said Gonzalez.

The continued move to the cloud in libraries is inevitable, concluded Shaw. 'We're seeing both our university and the wider sector moving far more towards cloud. Even if we in the library said ‘this is not the direction that we want to go in’ it feels like we'd just be trying to run against the tide. You can either try and turn against it or you can get involved in a way where you try to steer it in the right direction like with the environmental considerations. Embracing cloud has enabled us to think more strategically about how it best fits with the type of library we are the type of university we are and where we where we want to go.'