May 23, 2018

iCloud and Libraries

Jason Griffey has a couple of thoughtful blog posts that are well worth considering for their potential ramifications on how people are increasingly using computing devices and the impacts these changes may have on library services.

Although it is the release of iCloud, a new Apple service to store your data “in the cloud,” where it is available from any device, that spurred these posts, Griffey wisely sees both the broader roots and deeper implications.

The whole concept of iCloud seems to emerge from the lessons of iOS. Make things easier, more intuitive, less cumbersome…in other words, remove friction….and people will flock to your product. One of the criticisms of iOS devices is, I believe, actually its secret sauce; you don’t have to understand a file system. With the release of OS X Lion and the introduction of iOS 5, it’s clear that Apple wants alll information to be application driven. That is, any piece of data lives in the app that can deal with it. You can read a PDF on an iOS device, but you can only interact with it while using an application to do so. There’s no “saving” the file to a location in a file system (the “desktop” or “documents” folder) on an iOS device. There is just application, and data, and no other metaphor. This is what iCloud and Lion are bringing to the desktop, and where Apple has the potential to push us towards yet another new metaphor of computing.

What would a computing world without a filesystem be like?

On the good side you wouldn’t need to spend time managing your crap. You wouldn’t need to create your own idiosyncratic hierarchical filing system. Presumably, neither would you lose anything. Also, no matter which device you were using — your phone, your pad device, your laptop or desktop — your stuff would automatically be there.

On the bad side you’re relying on a few things over which you have little or no control. You’re relying on the ability to access the network. It’s true that at least some applications offer a way to have a local copy and sync that copy with the cloud copy, but if you haven’t done that, or that isn’t an option, then when you are away from either a WiFi access point or a cell network (such as where my Dad lives), then you are dead in the water. You will also be reliant on the cloud service provider keeping your data safe. It isn’t entirely clear (yet) what, if any, procedures Apple has in place to backup and preserve your data from loss.

For libraries, the implications are not entirely clear but are unlikely to be pleasant. Griffey points out one issue: “Apple means for iCloud and Lion to be tied to an individual, and assumes that a computer is used by a single person. In looking at the way they’ve set up Lion, iCloud, and iOS5, I’m not at all clear how shared systems (aka, public use computers) might be able to benefit from the advances that Apple is putting in front of users.” Also, the general trend line is one that we’ve already been experiencing with e-book readers but will get only worse in a world where data does not really exist independent from an application and an individual user of that application. As Griffey puts it:

I’ve spent some time in recent presentations talking about how personal electronics are designed to be personal, and not institutional. A lot of issues we have with managing things like Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and such, are that they just aren’t designed to be dealt with on an institutional basis. The expectation is that they have an owner (singular), and that all the files and interactions on the devices are those of that person. Things get complicated quickly when you need to have these devices managed by more than one person, or checked out to patrons. As a user, I love the direction that Apple is taking it’s computers…but as a librarian, and as an IT manager, I am not looking forward to computers going down the same road of single-user-expected that personal electronics have.

I’m with Griffey — I love the idea of frictionless computing but as a librarian this looks like a direction that will prove difficult for libraries. I’d love to be wrong about this, so if I am, please tell me so in a comment below.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Marc Crompton says:

    I’d love to tell you that you are wrong, but I fear the opposite. I am a long-time apple evangelist and would have it no other way, but the route that the commercial ebook providers are taking us where purchases are tied to an individual device is ludicrous from a library perspective. We should be in the business of disseminating information and books, not the devices that they happen to be housed on. Apple has always been a strong advocate of education. Hopefully that perspective will give them a little better understanding of the issues than companies like Amazon. I recognize that I’m comparing apples and oranges (pardon the pun), but the concept is the same.

  2. You’re also implicitly hoping that law enforcement never has an interest in looking at your data, since cloud data has far less legal protection than data resident on your machine. IANAL and all (though I have been trying for months to find a lawyer to do a guest post on this topic, as I never see it discussed in library cloud data discussions and it seems highly relevant to library values).

  3. Laura Hulscher says:

    Your point is perfectly illustrated in the following post. Not only are UIs geared towards individual users, so are licensing policies; In this example, Kindle’s policy needlessly complicates workflow, and the planned solution adds another layer of cost for school libraries.

  4. The current epub system with many public libraries throughout Los Angeles appears to be working well. With Apple products I have actually experienced a better environment when working across multiple machines thanks to the App Store. Previously my purchases were tied to a single machine. Now anything purchased through the App Store is tied to any Apple device which has my Apple ID logged in. Now that Kindle has enabled sharing of books, I think Apple will incorporate a similar feature — especially with the Amazon Fire coming out very soon.