By Meredith Farkas | July 4, 2009
Since before my brain was hijacked by baby stuff, I’ve been thinking a lot about how many third party Web 2.0 vendors libraries are dependent upon (not to mention all the ones we’re dependent on personally!). I actually wrote a column for American Libraries on the subject, but 600 words could not reflect the whole of my concerns. Nor probably can this email since I will most certainly be interrupted a half dozen times by an adorable baby who I find even more fun than blogging (so give me the benefit of the doubt if I write something that doesn’t quite make sense).
In just the past few weeks, I’ve received two emails from companies whose services I’ve tried out who are now shutting their doors. Another one is changing its focus and will no longer be hosting the very thing I was using it for. Luckily these were tools/services that I’d tried out but wasn’t dependent on for providing services to my patrons. But what if I had been dependent? Would I have been able to move my content easily to another provider? Would I have had to find a way to host the content myself? Or would the content have simply gone up in smoke with no way to ever get it back?
While going with hosted solutions for one’s 2.0 services is cheap or free and is often the only option for a library with a tight budget, it’s not always the prudent way to go. Even if the service is free, the time library staff spend creating content on that service isn’t, and we don’t want all that effort (and content) going down the drain. We often put way too much trust in many of these services, having no backups for the content we’re putting on their servers. One great example of what can happen when you trust a company too much is Ma.gnolia, which was a very popular social bookmarking company that had a catastrophic server failure in January and lost everyone’s data. While they tried to restore the database, they failed, and now they’re going to start from scratch (though I can’t imagine who would trust them with their bookmarks now!). I don’t know if Ma.gnolia allowed people to back up their own bookmarks to their hard drive, but even if they did, I’d wager that a lot of people rarely, if ever, remembered to do it (she writes sheepishly, wondering when the last time was that she backed up her own del.icio.us bookmarks — done!).
My friend Stephen Francoeur created two of the best 2.0 tools for library staff that I’m aware of — an active and useful reference blog and reference wiki. For these tools which he created four years ago or so, he used Blogger and PBWiki. The blog and wiki are vital to their reference staff since they contain so much staff knowledge collected over many years. In his most recent blog post, Stephen describes how he decided that home is the safest place for all that data and how he had to move the blog from Blogger to a locally hosted version of WordPress MU, and the wiki from PBWiki (now PBWorks) to a locally installed version of Confluence. He discussed how difficult the transition was, especially with the wiki since he had to literally copy and paste the content from the old wiki into the new. Had either of these companies gone bust before they could move that content to a local server, it might possibly have been gone forever. This just highlighted again to me how important it is that we gauge how vital the things we’ve created with these 2.0 tools are to our library (or to us personally if we use them outside of work) and take steps to protect that content or functionality accordingly. If the Google Custom Searches that I’ve created for several subject areas were to disappear, it wouldn’t be a grave tragedy. Were our subject guide wiki to disappear, we’d have lost content that is vital to our students and faculty and took us years to develop. That’s why our subject guide wiki lives on our own server.
We utilize the services of so many of these 2.0 companies because they provide services and space for free. However those services cost someone money, and if they aren’t making enough from pro accounts or ads, then they’re losing money on the bandwidth and server space it costs to run a successful site. Many of these companies lack any sort of a revenue model and while they may be funded by venture capitalists or big companies like Google and Yahoo! now, they may not be forever if they can’t find a way to make money for their benefactors. It scares me how dependent Iranians are on Twitter to get the word out about what the government is doing there when the company is losing money hand over fist. And many of the other big 2.0 companies we know and love are in the same boat.
There’s also the issue of their infrastructure. When I put things on our library’s server, I know that there are daily backups of the content. So if something goes kablooey, I can always roll it back to what it looked like the previous day. Not too bad. But do we know much about the server infrastructure of the companies we’re dependent on? Often we don’t know anything because that information isn’t provided to us. And this can even be a problem when you’re paying a company to run a service for you. Our Voyager ILS installation is hosted by Ex Libris, and a year or two ago they had too high a load on their servers and, as a result, we had a lot of problems with Voyager going down for a few months. It’s important, whether we’re paying or not, that when we’re trusting a mission critical service to a third party we know about their server infrastructure.
Another big issue is when a company decides to suddenly change how it operates, which may leave you high and dry or might at least force you to change the way you operate. A great case in point is PBWiki, now known as PBWorks. I really thought a great deal of PBWiki early on, so much so that I was on their Educational Advisory Board. Then they managed to alienate much of their original fanbase, me included. First they created a new version of their wiki software (PBWiki 2.0) which completely changed the way that authentication into the wiki worked. But you still had the choice of whether or not you wanted to create a 1.0 or 2.0 wiki. And in spite of a huge wave of negative feedback they received about PBWiki 2.0, they not only kept it the way it was, but forced people to switch their original PBWikis to 2.0. Now, they’re called PBWorks and I have no idea if the wikis (or workspaces) still look the same as the 2.0 wiki, because I wouldn’t touch a PBWiki at this point with a 10-foot pole. I don’t like companies that don’t listen to their users.
I don’t have a good solution for what libraries should do if they can’t afford to host their own content (or if the only technology providing that functionality is externally hosted), but I do think it’s critical that we should think critically about these companies with which we’re entrusting our content and whether our content is safe enough relative to its value. While your Twitter posts may not be super-valuable to you later on, your del.icio.us bookmarks or blog posts probably are. If your content is important to your library, consider whether or not you think that service that’s hosting your content is stable. Who hosts your content? A large, stable company that is making enough to at least cover its expenses, a start-up with venture funding and no revenue model, or some individual for whom this service is a hobby (though they hope to sell it to Google one day — and btw, it’s scary that “selling to Google” seems to have become a revenue model in itself)? Can you easily back up that content? Can you easily move it to another service? And do other services exist that provide the same or similar functionality? And equally important, what claims do these companies make on your content (always read their Terms of Service!). We need to consider all these things because I’d hate to see the hard work of librarians go up in smoke because it didn’t occur to them that these free 2.0 services might not be here forever.
Have any of you had disasters with hosted services? Have you moved your stuff from a hosted service to your own server and why? What do you consider before you put content on some third party’s servers? Do you feel like the your content is safe in all of the 2.0 services you use online?
My little guy is sick of beating up the animals hanging from his activity gym and seems to want some cuddle time now. Talk amongst yourselves.