Small campus library bolstered by the cloud

Student citations have improved since Covenant moved to a cloud-based library system.

Sitting on top of Lookout Mountain, Covenant College sometimes is lost in the clouds. Now, the private Dade County, Ga., school’s Kresge Memorial Library will be in the clouds every day, thanks to an Ohio-based organization that brings together schools to share library resources while keeping down rising costs.

Covenant College is one of only a handful of institutions around the world to launch a cloud-based library system to streamline administrative functions and provide access to books and media in libraries worldwide—expanding student research well beyond the confines of the small Christian liberal arts campus, said Tad Mindeman, Covenant’s director of library services.

“It’s unlike anything that has been done before,” he said.

In technological terms, the “cloud” refers to the storage of users’ data and software on remote servers that can be accessed through any internet connection.

Colleges increasingly have used cloud-based programs to save on hardware and maintenance costs, and by subscribing to the Online Computer Library Center’s new cloud-based integrated operating system, the school could save $50,000 over the next few years.

For students and faculty at Covenant, doing a search on the library’s system is like using Google, only in this case they can see all of the books and electronic resources available in different libraries around the world, Mindeman said.

Using OCLC’s vast library of digitized books, articles, and other publications doesn’t come with the legal concerns common with other efforts to move library resources to the web.

Vendors who own the rights to books stored in the OCLC system have reached legal agreements with the organization, meaning the project won’t face the legal hurdles seen in Google’s bid to create a vast digital library.

Covenant College was among about three dozen libraries to test OCLC’s new cloud-based integrated operating system—called WorldShare—in February 2011.

Mindeman said Covenant paid the $20,000 fee for migrating digital books into the cloud because it would save the library money, bring more resources to students, and remove the IT burden of fixing and updating library software and hardware.

“It was worth the risk of trusting in a product that we’ve seen develop over time,” Mindeman said. “It’s an experiment still going on, but the benefits of sharing with other institutions will allow us to collaborate in ways we never dared to imagine even a decade ago. We just decided to walk out front on this one. Whenever we can offload [IT and library work] and still get great service, it is a no-brainer.”

WorldShare is a technology platform designed to emphasize “collaboration and app-sharing across the library community,” according to the OCLC. The group is a nonprofit membership and research organization.

“Every library has some sort of software system it uses to run its internal operation, cataloging, circulation, acquisitions,” Mindeman said, describing the new system as a “catalog of catalogs of libraries from all over the world.”

That saves time and money on the administrative side, he said.

Each month, the college pays about $3,000 for the service, but in the long run it will save money because Covenant does not have to maintain servers and upgrade software, Mindeman said.

Research universities often have more than a million volumes on their shelves, while Covenant students have access to about 100,000 physical volumes in the campus library—making it essential for the school to team up with other colleges and universities with many times the number of library resources.

“It just provides a much quicker and more comprehensive way to find resources about what [students are] looking for,” Mindeman said, adding that Covenant books and articles are listed before resources from other colleges when students search in the system. “Covenant College is no longer isolated; we can find anything through these searches.”

The number of books packing the shelves of a school’s library, Mindeman said, has become largely irrelevant in higher education as the vast majority of books and publications have been transferred to some sort of online database, whether it’s stored on on-campus servers or in the cloud.

Library officials at Covenant said they have seen marked improvement in students’ bibliographies and citations since the school switched to the cloud-based system in April.

Before, students were using books and articles that weren’t varied enough for major end-of-semester projects, Mindeman said.

“Citations were more limited in previous years,” he said. “It seemed like students just weren’t doing a great job with their library searches. Citations now, however, show a broader range of exposure to resources.”

OCLC was formed in the 1960s when a group of Ohio libraries joined to create a nonprofit membership organization aiming to expand information access to the public.

The OCLC’s first step was to merge the catalogs of libraries across Ohio into one electronic database. Combining library resources helped those first member libraries streamline behind-the-scenes work and keep costs down.

The technology world in general is shifting more toward cloud computing, where everything is done remotely, including data storing, said Marshall Breeding, director of innovative technologies and research at Vanderbilt University.

And it is a trend libraries have started to follow.

“If you look forward five years from now, a much larger number of libraries would have moved in that direction by then,” Breeding said.

Copyright (c) 2011, the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.), with additional reporting from eCampus News. Visit the Chattanooga Times/Free Press online at Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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