Saturday, March 03, 2007

If Online Storage is the future, where do libraries come in?

Quite some time ago, I'd skimmed through Jeremiah Ow-yang's posts on the future of Online Storage (e.g. this and this one). At that time, the topic of Online Storage didn't really make a deep impression me.

That was until I dug up these two posts "from the past":
  • Kenneth lamented about the loss of his computer data. His hard disk failed and he didn't make backups of his music, photos and document files. *Ouch*
  • Vanessa was considering a hassle-free system to backup her data. She needed to deal with her growing collection of digital files that were rapidly exceeding her various physical storage spaces.
With Kenneth's and Vanessa's posts fresh in my mind, I re-read Jeremiah's. I feel Online Storage is something to watch. I'm not predicting that Online Storage is the Next Big Thing. I'm saying it bears watching.

I suggest that developments in Online Storage will be of relevance to libraries and librarians.

Data retrieval from the respective Online Storage services
One obvious area would be how librarians can effectively search and retrieve the data. The assumption is that individuals will make some of their privately-owned data (stored online) to be publicly accessible -- like what we see with Flickr and PicasaWeb, just to name two.

The respective Online Storage services would have their own search features that mines for their specific data. Those search features may require variations in search syntax, and/ or require users to know where and what to look (interface-wise).

"But there's Google and Yahoo!"

Well, good as they are, they will not be the complete solution in information retrieval. For instance, as of now it's still more efficient to search directly in services like Flickr and Technorati if you have specific formats or information in mind.

Perhaps in the future, advances in Search Engines and personal computing power may allow end-users to custom build their own "Federated Searches". However, the limitations of Federated Searches are likely to be persistent.

Even if there exists an efficient and effective "Single Search" service, one also has to consider the growth in the data. The resultant mega-listings of search results would likely force users to narrow their searches using the respective search features of the Online Storage services.

Tagging & Folksonomies; Informal Classification and Indexing Systems
As users upload and create more files and data, they would naturally recognise the need to index, categorise/ classify their data. We already see this happening with services like Blogger (Labels), Wordpress (Categories), Flickr, Technorati and (Tags).

My observation is that the term "Tags" has become generic (like "Escalators" and "Elevators"). What used to be a practice limited to Librarianship is now being adopted by the masses -- in principle, if not in form.

I'm not suggesting that libraries should enter the fray and propose a formal taxonomy for Online Storage services. What librarians can do is to leverage on this increased awareness and educate users on concepts like Controlled Vocabulary.

As search systems get easier to use and our customers becoming more sophisticated, our user-education classes would be less library-centric, and more user-centric (e.g. how they can effectively organise their own data using their Online Storage service of choice).

The more effective the information is "tagged", the greater the efficiency and effectiveness of the librarian in searching for the information (on the behalf of users). Implied in this is that as the availability of data grows, the more -- not less -- the customer would appreciate and rely on the professional services by libraries and librarians.

** *** **

All the above are conjectures of course. What I'm certain though, is that it would be worth our while as Library and Information Professionals (where our general strength is in Information Intermediation) to anticipate issues and opportunities that might help the profession remain relevant in an increasingly dis-intermediated industry.


  1. Anonymous1:34 pm

    A lot of people ask me the same question ... Once a director of IT operation asked,"what are you doing in library? with you knowledge and expertise, you should join us in the IT department."

    Although, I have grown up with all these IT jargon, I still glad I am in an academic library. It is about education. Library is about education and cultura (or heritage), while IT (tools like online storaye) is our asset and weapon ...

    Managment would like to see a balance line in the strategic alignment model for both IT and Library orperation.

    That is actually my humble opinion.

  2. I actually do think the future is in online storage. From a technology point of view, the cost of the gigabyte will keep falling while the speed of the network in keeps increasing. 100MBps in most offices already allow users to write to and search network storage, and that technology vendors are already talking about 1GBps metropolitan wireless networks.

    We don't just have to think in terms of web pages and HTML interfaces for accessing/searching data. It could jolly well be direct from the file system.

    I could imagine real-time 3D visualisation of information. =)


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