Throughout history the library has been a place for the masses to get free access to information and to help grow their abilities, their culture, their knowledge. I think they would be a perfect home for the cloud.
In modern times, there might be a temptation to think that they are less needed, when everyone has access to free knowledge at the tap of a screen. But they absolutely still have a place. Libraries serve more than just books. Most libraries now have an online presence where you can borrow eBooks, audiobooks, digital magazines and periodicals. Most libraries have public access terminals for free use of internet, text editing, and printing facilities. I have also seen libraries branch out into making available physical appliances, like repair equipment and 3D printers.
I suggest that they could also start offering free access to basic cloud services, like fediverse social media and email.
Recent times have seen an increase in distrust of technology services made available by the biggest companies. This is true amongst the general public, though it is especially concentrated amongst tech-savvy circles. Do you trust the cloud provider to not read your emails or hand them over to unscrupulous government agencies? Do you trust your cloud provider to keep your important documents safe and not one day hold them to ransom? Do you trust the social media company to not suddenly change the rules one day and kick you off on a whim?
It is here that I think libraries could begin to play a role. There are now myriad open source solutions for every cloud service imaginable that can be deployed on even modest hardware. Email servers have long been available for free use by anyone. And now social media services like Mastodon, project management solutions like GitHub, and many more are freely available. It is here that libraries could play a key role in offering people access to basic online services, free of interference from big tech companies. There are three main reasons why we should want this:
Education. Many people may wish to “switch” to more tolerable kinds of technology, but might not be sure where to start. Young people may grow up not even knowing alternatives exist. Libraries taking charge of publicising this technology, showcasing viability, even offering training in administration would be a great public good.
Trust. A local library has a physical presence. It has named people in charge. You can walk in and see who works there, build a relationship. It is not some faceless glass office halfway around the world. A library also cares for its community. It is not there to make money, it is there to serve the people that use it – this makes it inherently more trustworthy.
Community. When offering free technology there is always the risk that a few bad players ruin it for everyone else. If a central library for a town or community takes stewardship of the cloud, everyone knows it’s something to share, not to abuse. This could foster more positive attitudes towards technology and fend off abuse. And the community can control and decide how the technology operates, rather than a corporation.
Library clouds would never replace commercial offerings. They would have to be limited in scope, storage space and more. But they would show the potential that open technology offers, and could help bolster a market for companies to sell access to “fully unlimited” versions of the same technology, if people wanted to migrate.
The major question is one of funding. Here in the UK, public libraries are already at risk of funding cuts and closures, and I imagine the same is true elsewhere. But if the right people can be persuaded, this could greatly benefit our ever more technological society.