Gathering in the Clouds

Libraries and cloud storage

November 1, 2017

Joseph Janes

As summer gives way to autumn, those of us who live in the Northwest inevitably steel ourselves for what we know is coming. Not only do the days grow shorter, they get damper, and inexorably the clouds roll in. So there’s a different resonance whenever we hear people talk about storage in “the cloud.”

But I found myself wondering the other day: The cloud is a new kind of information territory, so where is the open, public space within it? Where are the libraries?

What if libraries offered truly free, no-strings-attached cloud storage to  their communities? That would provide security, privacy, permanence, and  continuity—just the kind of foundation that creative works, particularly those of any sophistication, require.

For all I knew, this was already happening, so I did some due diligence, searched for examples of public libraries offering free cloud-based storage, and came up empty. I did find several instances of classes, workshops, guidelines on the existing services, how they work, how to compare them and decide which one to use, and so on, which is all to the good. (And apologies to anybody I missed.)

In mulling over this, I also did something I’d never done before, which was to read some terms-of-service agreements. I’m no lawyer, though here’s what I found.

The cloud is a new kind of information territory, so where are the libraries?

Dropbox says: “When you use our Services, you provide us with things like your files, content, messages, contacts and so on (‘Your Stuff’). Your Stuff is yours. These Terms don’t give us any rights to Your Stuff except for the limited rights that enable us to offer the Services.” Refreshingly simple. Most of the rest is about as you’d expect, including their ability to collect personal and usage information and share that for internal and some (not entirely well specified) external purposes.

Contrast this: “Google Drive allows you to upload, submit, store, send, and receive content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours. When you upload … you give Google a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations, or other changes we make so that your content works better with our services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and distribute such content.” Hmmm. It goes on to say, chirpily, that all these options are used to help improve their services, but hmmm.

I know there are complications here—costs, liability concerns, details, staffing, training—and likely other options we could point people to. But for now, at least, consider the possibilities of a service such as this, of and from libraries.

I have no clue what people might use this for—if my Dropbox is in any way typical, it’s Limbo for long-forgotten documents waiting to see the light of Paradise—though I think the point is as much what the actual use would be as the idea behind offering it and the message it would send. Libraries are places of learning, discovery, and creation, and places you can trust where your works are safe and protected, which can so often be the missing piece of the information cycle.

This idea feels akin to familiar library themes: public, communally supported, providing equity of access to something usable by all, though I struggled to imagine a direct parallel. The best I can come up with is a community gardening allotment, another place of germination and growth for mutual benefit.

One of our favorite sardonic Seattle weather jokes is that summer begins on the 5th of July. The clouds finally part, far too often for my tastes, on the day after we celebrate our freedom. There’s a lesson in there somewhere … but that’s another story.