February 25, 2020

Google Drive as an Institutional Repository

Innovation comes in many guises. When we hear the word we probably most often thinks it means creating something new. But innovation can also be using something that already exists in a new way. Innovation of the latter variety was recently exhibited in an interesting post to the Code4Lib list. The message, from Chris Fitzpatrick, talked about how at the small institution he serves (115 students) they are using Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) as if it were an institutional repository (IR).

Some of the benefits of this arrangement include:

  • Low cost. Either free, or $5/month for 100 GB of storage (and available in both smaller and larger increments at similar or better per GB pricing).
  • Low maintenance. You have no software to maintain, Google does it for you.
  • Easy organization. Documents can be placed into “folders” but really all this means is they are “tagged” with a particular label.
  • Persistent URLs. Since documents that appear to be in “folders” are really just “tagged”, this means their URL does not change even if you “move” a document from one folder to another. You are really just changing the tags.
  • Flexible authorization. As Chris puts it, “We can make a document open to the world, grant access to groups/individuals, only allow access if they have the URL, etc.”
  • Full-text searching.

Some of the drawbacks:

  • No metadata. Chris says they currently use Koha for the document metadata, which has the drawback of not having full-text and metadata searching in one system.
  • The embedded document viewer (and OCR for searching) can only handle files of sizes less than 20MB. In the case of files that exceed this limit, they must be downloaded to be viewed.
  • Relying on Google for preservation, or replicating the data elsewhere.
  • Potential access problems with certain geographies. Since you are relying on Google, any issues a country (such as China) might have with Google can lead to spotty access or no access at all). Likewise, European governments have been known to have concerns about storing information where the long hand of our law can easily reach.
But…yeah. Not such a bad idea given their requirements, and perhaps not a bad idea for you either.
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. You made the drawback too short:

    * Relying on Google for preservation, or replicating the data elsewhere, WHERE GOOGLE HAS SHOWN THEY WILL REMOVE OR CHANGE A SERVICE WITH VERY LITTLE RECOURSE OR WARNING.

    • chris fitzpatrick says:

      Yeah, I wouldn’t say we rely on Google for preservation. Locally, the data is stored in several locations. Everything on Google Drive is sync’ed from a local disk, which is mirrored and backed up. Not a perfect preservation plan, but much better than what was happening when I got here…still lots to improve on! I am trying to work through the issues of uploading everything to Internet Archive, since we have a lot of pretty interesting unique documents.

      So, yeah, Google is just a vendor. I definitely always plan things that if the vendor disappeared right now, it might make my job harder for a few weeks, but we’d still have our all stuff.

      I would not be surprised in the slightest if we got a call tomorrow from our parent United Nations / EU / Swedish overlords that told us to get off Google Apps ASAP because of the FISAAA business.

  2. Jim Ottaviani says:

    I agree, and that means the benefits list should not include persistent URLs. You can’t claim that a URL is persistent if there’s no plan for or commitment to making it persist.