Libraries, the cloud and Covid-19

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Remote access to a library’s resources and services has become especially important following the emergence of the new coronavirus, writes David Stuart

Libraries, like many institutions, have shifted away from local hardware and software installation and towards the access of services over the internet. 

The shift has been driven by the promise of both cost savings and the provision of better services. The Integrated Library System (ILS) has traditionally been the centre of a library’s technological infrastructure – integrating acquisition, cataloguing and circulation information – and these were some of the first services that libraries started to move across to the cloud around 10 years ago. Since then other library services have also moved into cloud environments, along with services of the wider institutions which are migrating everything from financial systems to human resource systems.

The reason for the shift to the cloud is simple, but the benefits are enormous, as Jane Burke, VP of Strategic Initiatives at Ex Libris (a ProQuest company) explained: ‘We release software into the cloud for everyone, ensuring they’re all on the same version. We can monitor the cloud’s performance 24/7 and can proactively stop anything bad from happening. We can also make improvements at a much larger scale. For example, this year we released a new version of the index for our discovery services – it has four billion objects in it, and there’s no way to load that volume of information to locally deployed systems. The cloud allows large content sets to be available to all customers without their having to curate them locally.’ 

As Scott Livingston, Executive Director at OCLC, noted, there are significant cost savings and the potential for greater collaboration: ‘There are significant transfers related to cost of ownership - from the institution that is using the application to the institution that is hosting the software and cloud experience. For example, shifting costs around software maintenance and updating, and hardware expenses. Neither of those are needed in cloud environments, and so those costs of ownership transfer from the library back to the organisation providing the service.

‘In a multi-tenant cloud environment, where multiple institutions exist in the same cloud environment, things like information and data sharing become significantly easier. One of the classic examples is, there may be a single cataloguer working for several libraries in a consortium or group and a multi-tenant experience allows that individual to catalogue items amongst all those institutions in a much more efficient and effective way, than in a locally deployed system would allow.’

This significant benefit of the cloud does not mean there have been no objections to the shift, but early objections have largely been overcome, and where there is still a reluctance it is often for cultural reasons. 

Livingston continued: ‘Early on, much of the focus was around security, because data is stored in the cloud as well as the operating software, and there was enormous anxiety about third-party organisations being able to protect that data in the same way that a locally deployed instance of a piece of software could. Those days are long past, and security specifically because it’s a cloud environment is not top of mind for most institutions anymore.

‘What you do continue to see are some institutions that prefer to have a locally deployed system because it typically allows them to do significant customisation, to create a much more tailored solution for them. And that notion of being able to control your own destiny with a locally installed system does resonate with a certain part of the marketplace. But by and large most institutions, particularly in environments like we’re in today, see cloud computing as a significant strategic advantage for them. Cloud computing is the new norm. 

An increasingly integrated ecosystem

As cloud computing has become the ‘new norm’, it has enabled an increasingly integrated system of services. As the different parts of the library ecosystem move to the cloud it becomes easier for them to connect with each other – and as more institutions move to the cloud, it becomes more financially viable for new services to be developed. 

Roger Valade, chief technology officer at ProQuest, highlighted ProQuest’s Rialto marketplace as a great example of the sort of integration that is now possible. Rialto is the result of a longstanding vision to integrate the selection and acquisition workflows in a single environment.  Building Rialto atop the Ex Libris Higher Ed Cloud Platform allowed ProQuest to place a modern marketplace into the same system libraries use to manage their collections, holdings, budget and more. 

The benefits are not just theoretical, but measurable, as Valade explained: ‘Rialto enables a librarian to interact with a marketplace of products and services in Alma directly. If you have a patron who is looking for a book that you don’t have, you can trigger the acquisition process right within that workflow. One of the first libraries to go live on Rialto has cut the time it takes to place an order by more than half. The system matches requests against their current inventory and gives them information in real time.’

Burke provides Rapido as another integration example under development, in an area which has traditionally been far from integrated: ‘Rapido is a true cloud-based model for interlibrary loan and resource sharing, an area in which many libraries still use very old technology. Rapido has a holdings index that allows end-users to place requests for items that are not in the local collection, get immediate feedback, and move the transaction through in a very efficient way. It’s another example of how the cloud has matured enough that we’re starting to see complete changes to models of very traditional services.’

Artificial intelligence

As well as integration, the great swathes of data that are being collected and shared via the cloud also opens the opportunity for artificial intelligence and machine learning to offer new insights and improvements to the way services are used. 

As Valade points out, AI has been much heralded in the past, but this time it’s different: ‘It’s because of the cloud that we’re able to use AI to make products better for our users. We’ve been talking about AI for decades, but now we actually have the technology and data to make an impact. Today, we can use AI to improve the search experience – helping users find what they’re looking for and recommending additional content to them. We’re able to do this more and more effectively as time goes on.’

Livingston noted, in a similar vein: ‘Machine learning around data analytics is one of the places that is most within our grasp, and you are seeing the beginnings of a lot of good work in that space already. In the cloud environment, all those individual data assets can connect together, and so you can deploy machine learning technologies that start to allow for really interesting new advances around benchmarking, assessment, and best practice identification. 

‘You can start to see outliers not just in your institution but across the shared collective cloud experience. The other place where you start to see some real benefits is around workflow efficiencies, spotting efficiencies, recommended workflows, and creating value-added recommendations to organizations about how to optimise their consumption of the software, or potentially back to the developer themselves to enhance or refine the software.’

Again, the practical examples of AI are already beginning to be deployed within cloud based library systems. Burke gives the example of Alma’s AI agent DARA (Data Analysis Recommendations Assistant): ‘DARA gives us the ability to make smart suggestions. It looks at an individual library’s configuration, looks at other customers’ configurations, and comes back and says to the customer ‘We noticed that you’re not using SUSHI [Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative] around this database, but I can tell you that other libraries have successfully employed SUSHI – would you like me to do that for you?’

The long-term impact of Covid-19

The cloud was already firmly established within the library community before Covid-19 emerged, and while the pandemic has consolidated the benefits of the cloud in many people’s minds, it has also brought significant uncertainty about the future. Such uncertainty can often lead to reduced technological investment, although the particular circumstances surrounding the pandemic means a more complicated picture has emerged with investment in those technologies that meet an immediate need. 

Livingston notes: ‘In the last six months there has been increased demand for cloud based solutions. In many respects that’s driven by very immediate needs around being able to manage applications, particularly when a campus or a public library facility may be shuttered because of the pandemic. Having the software locally deployed, but no staff able to maintain or use it creates lots of operation problems, so you see a strong demand for organisations to shift into cloud experiences. 

‘The demand tends to be higher in the current environment around services that are directly tied to distance learning and to remote services. So a large scale purchase like an ILS is likely being paused, because of budgetary concerns and uncertainties, but cloud based applications like EZproxy, which are designed to help facilitate access to electronic resources, are in incredibly high demand at the moment.’

Burke has also seen a growing rise in interest in facilitating access to digital content, as well as interest in leaving the legacy systems behind: ‘We’ve seen some immediate changes – for example, customers moving ahead with their acquisition of a cloud-based system because it enabled their staff to work from home. But the changes around content and content usage are going to be more profound. Being away from the print collections for a period of months has made ebooks and e-content much more prominent in everybody’s operations, as well as in the minds of users. So we’re going to see some long-lasting and fundamental changes.’

The continuing evolution of the cloud

How the cloud develops in the future is not merely the preserve of the technology sector, but also legislators and the community of users.  The role of legislators was raised by Livingston, who highlighted how increased regional variation, caused by regulatory requirements such as GDPR, created challenges that needed to be overcome: ‘If European data has to stay in Europe, then it means those organizations cannot co-mingle data with institutions, for example, in North America. It’s going to be very interesting to see how technologies can form a bridge between those regional clouds in a way that allows the benefits of the technology to be shared without the data themselves being shared. It’s a very emerging space right now, so it’s one we’re very closely looking at.’

Burke highlighted the role of community in the evolution of the cloud: ‘One of the most important lessons we’ve learned is that the cloud is better because of community. We put significant time and effort into building cloud solutions, but the ability for us to involve the community in our process has made those solutions better. In my mind, the importance of community will continue to grow.’ 

If there is one lesson that most people will take from 2020, it is that making predictions about the future is extremely difficult, and while the cloud is here to stay, it will inevitably continue to evolve in unexpected ways.