Friday, August 04, 2006

Fix-it Fridays: Lack of Computers or Thin Clients Don’t Work

These days in order to apply for a job; you have to do it online. Safeway, Walmart, Home Depot and others all have this convenient computer kiosk to apply for a job, no more paper applications. Isn’t it great to be without paper? Until the computer breaks, then you head down to the library.

Libraries were blessed with Gates Grants many years ago that bridged the digital divide. A whole world of information was opened. Patrons began to rely on this technology, and then businesses did, then the Internal Revenue Service did, and then the Department of Economic Security did, and that is where problems began. In 1995, congress passed the Paperwork Reduction Act. Essentially, the use of paper for communication was to be reduced and an electronic format, preferably the Internet, was the preferred choice to provide information. It was great. You could get information from anywhere just by having a computer and Internet access. Many businesses are providing services online as well. Again, this is great if you have a computer and Internet access. After several reports, such as Falling Through the Net, people began realizing that there was a digital divide by creating this access. Before, you would have to travel far to get forms or call people on the phone, but since everything was online, there were no more forms, or people to call. The reply always was, oh well you can get that online… what’s that, you don’t have a computer? Well, then I can’t help you, sorry.

As information providers, public libraries stepped in and began offering computer and Internet access to the public. This move was further bolstered by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which essentially placed computers in most libraries across the United States. Problems did not arise until three years later.

This is where my library comes in. We had our original 11 gates grant computers. However, we had to teach people how to use these computers. The way our library is situated, we ended up placing all of our computers into one room with the exception of one. This led to obvious problems, as when class was in session, there was no public computer access at the library except for one computer. So we could not really teach the public how to use the computers without denying access to the rest of the population. We then began our experiments.

We received some operating capital funds from the city to provide us with a way to manage our computers through an automated system and to increase access. After shopping around, we came to the realization that this was not enough money to provide access and pay for a time management system. We came up with three solutions, one provide wireless internet access through Polaris’s Wireless Access Manager, use an open source product to manage the computers, and use thin clients to save money since we did not need full workstations.

The wireless worked great, at first. After some touch and go problems and with the system being down for an entire month after being available only for one month, it seemed to work fine. This saved some of the computers since during the winter visitor season as many of our visitors have laptops with wireless cards.

The open source product was a bust. We spent hundreds of hours working with the system for over nine months, only to have it blow up on us. Overworked library staff, overworked IT staff, and angry patrons only had one person to blame… me.

The thin client solution was the worst for us. Our IT could not get them to work the way they said they could. What ended up happening is that we just let people on them and told them they could only get internet access…but only if you are not using yahoo or hotmail…and you can’t print… and you can’t save anything…and…..and again, staff and patrons were frustrated. There is nothing like offering crappy service to the public. They let you know they are not happy and so will staff, and rightly so. You cannot offer a substandard service to the public. They will simply refuse to use the service. Our poor staff members with clipboards in hand monitoring the public were left trying to manage additional computers on two floors with some computers doing one thing and some computers doing another. With all the computers over three years old, the constant ctrl-alt-delete was giving them carpal tunnel.

It is always important when implementing technology to make sure all of the technology is the same and that the service is sustainable. Different computers with different abilities will only lead to disgruntled patrons, staff, and the general public. I was only saved in this process by another round of Gates Grants and a City funded project, which allowed me to replace all the thin clients with full workstations and the existing crappy workstations with brand new sleek ones.

So the moral of the story is not to implement technology without the ability to be consistent, having adequate IT staff support, knowing what your level of services is going to be, sustainability, and simply just knowing what you are doing. Technology is tricky and you should only provide what you can sustain. Also, make sure you get as much information as possible in order to make the best decision about what types of computers, technology, and other items to provide the best service available for your library.

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