Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Public Access Computer Problem

Since the 1990s, public libraries have provided computers with Internet access. The introduction of this new service has brought more people into the library and more people using all of the library's services. It is a great and vital service for communities around the world. One problem that libraries have is that they don't keep up with these machines, neither in replacing old machines, providing critical software, or providing adequate bandwidth. Bandwidth is something that I have written about extensively. Fast, reliable Internet is one of the most important services a library can provide. Furthermore, the web 2.0 revolution has resulted in more patrons using bandwidth hogging services like watching and uploading video and photos.

The Trouble with Computers
The main problem I have with public access computers is that we don't often look at what that service really provides. Late last year, our bandwidth was terrible. We knew from June forward that we had to expand the bandwidth and after some work in finalizing our e-rate appeal, we were able to secure funding to upgrade.

The other problem we discovered was that critical free programs were not being updated regularly. Flash, shockwave, and windows media player all needed to be updated. Patrons couldn't even watch the latest news videos because it was not upgraded. In some cases, it impacted videos for school work.

Internet Explorer needed to be upgraded to 7.0 as many services began to state that programs would not work properly without the upgrade.

We needed to upgrade Open Office and also try to provide Microsoft Office suite on all of the computers. I prefer to have both since patrons often have file formats that are not compatible with Word. A problem I discovered was that most people bring in files on Word Perfect, since most computers sold have Word Perfect already installed, but not Microsoft Word. It is possible to set Word Perfect to save as a Microsoft Word file, but most patrons don't realize the difference until they cannot open their file at the library.

Lastly, not all of the computers had the same drives in them. Some had floppy and some had Cds and some had both. Due to a snafu when we ordered the computers when we upgraded all of our computers, we received some that can only fit one drive at a time. To solve this, we began selling flash drives. Flash drives are as simple to use as a floppy with our computers, and they were a big hit and solved a big problem for us.

Before all of these changes:
  • The bandwidth was so slow, patrons could barely check their email.
  • They couldn't watch video effectively (due to both bandwidth and lack of updates)
  • They couldn't fully utilize all critical programs
  • They couldn't save their files to a disk in the same way.
What the Future Holds
The experience has taught me that public access computing is very difficult with most libraries. Many libraries are not even going this far in providing their service. The way I see it, we are competing with a home computer. If a patron gets fast, reliable Internet at home, they don't need to use your services. That's a good thing, but we should provide the equivalent at the library so that there is no disadvantage. My belief is that we should attempt to make the public access computer as close as possible to a personal computer. That's when I read this post from Swiss Army Librarian. They are switching from Internet Explorer to Firefox. In my technology plan, it was suggested to do this, but we were rebuffed for security reasons. Swiss Army Librarian posted their solution:
The reason we are switching is a simple one - Firefox is just cooler. It lets us have more control over how the browser functions, and lets us offer more tools integrated right into the browser. Better for us, better for patrons.

Here’s a list of the customizations we’re making:

Add-OnsPublic Fox - this is designed to make Firefox a public web browser, as opposed to being used and customized by a single, private person. We’re using it to lock down add-ons, preference, about:config, and a few other things, as well as control what file types can be downloaded

Menu Editor - also for the control freak in us, this one lets us remove menus from the tool bar (we’re getting rid of bookmarks, help and history)

Greasemonkey - one of my favorites, this lets us embed custom coding on webpages, such as a link from Amazon to our catalog, and helpful links on our catalog’s “no search results” page (more info on those on our Tech Tools page)

Add To Search Bar - this fun one lets us easily add our library catalog right to Firefox’s search bar. The other searches we chose to include are Google, Yahoo, Amazon, the Internet Movie Database,, Wikipedia, and Merriam-Webster

IE Tab - For all of those “Best viewed in Internet Explorer” websites, this one lets you toggle back and forth between the Firefox and IE rendering engines, so IE-only pages and scripts will load in Firefox

Image Zoom - just like what it sounds, this adds zoom controls to the right-click menu, to make images bigger and smaller. This one is most useful to patrons who get emailed digital photos at 1024 x 768 resolution, which is too big for our screens. This lets them zoom out so they can see all of their grandchild’s face at the same time.
The top problems with firefox was the customizable nature of the program and pages that only work with IE. This solves both of those problems. There is more written, go read the entire post.
These are services we always need to assess to provide the best service. If you have your own IT, or work with a larger organization's IT, build a relationship with them so that you can start this conversation. I recently purchased 10 laptops through a grant program. We weren't going as far as to do the laptop check-out program that Alachua County Library is doing, but I wanted to make the laptops as close to a personal PC as possible. We set up an automatic log-in, we set up the user as a power use, and we even allowed programs to be downloaded and minor changes to be made. We still used the windows security toolkit and most of the usage will only be used under direct supervision (like our teen group or on the bookmobile with wireless Internet). In this way, we can provide a great service that is similar to someone's "at home" experience. ACLD does this with their laptop check-out:
Although ALCD had installed the Fortres disk-protection program Clean Slate on hundreds of desktop machines, Fettes' staff decided that this application was too restrictive for the laptops, partially because Clean Slate does not allow users to update Flash or Java platforms. The staff were resolved to offer patrons wide open access to these powerful laptops, considering in particular the needs of gamers who download plug-ins to play resource-intensive programs.

To protect their investment, Fettes' staff began experimenting methods to restore a laptop to its original settings with partitioning software and the disk-imaging program Norton Ghost, ultimately arriving at a solution that was both fast, easy, and smart.

“They played around with it and found that they could actually create a ghost image, put it in a hidden partition, and using a flash drive with a run-time version of [Norton] Ghost on it, they could actually redo the C: drive within three to four minutes between each use,” said Fettes.
Fettes added that this restoration system not only helped protect patrons' privacy, but the ease of this solution allowed non-technical staffers the confidence to turn the machines over with little effort.

“All they had to do was basically insert the thumb drive and we set it up to boot off of USB,” Fettes said. “They essentially turned [the laptop] off, put in the thumb drive, turned it on, and [the C: drive] rewrote itself. And then it beeped at them when it was done.”

A Public Computer as a Personal Computer?
It wouldn't be as easy to do this on a public access computer. However, I think every library should try to make their computers as close as possible to a personal computer. In my opinion, there should be standards for libraries to follow so libraries have the same programs available on their computers and should be able to easily replace bad computers. Once there is a standard interface, the image can be ghosted and shared. Furthermore, libraries should provide back-up computers for when their computers break or are inoperable. We are attempting to have four always available with the same set-up ready to go. If one breaks beyond what we can do, we should be able to replace it until the heavy assessment and repair work performed by IT. We should have a relationship, a service level agreement like this one. We should have the ability to always assess that service and be able to have a plan to improve it with the fast-changing tide of technology for the ease of use and the betterment of our patrons.


Anonymous said...

In our small library, we have 3 public access computers which are updated weekly. I am the children's librarian, but I also take care of the IT in our library, just doing updates, installing programs, fixing errors, etc. So our computers are always current and patrons can access whatever they like and programs will always work.

We actually find here (Carleton Place, Ontario, Canada), that most people who come in to use word programs, actually DON"T have word perfect installed at home or work, but rather an older version of Microsoft Word, and our newest versions don't support it, so we had to download a fix so that they are compatible. Problems, but there are usually ways around.

We also have an interesting piece of software known as a sheriff that allows patrons to install any program, or download anything they wish, but upon a restart of the computer, everything is wiped off except our original setup. We just have to log out of the sheriff to do our updates, but we find that this satisfies our patrons and keeps our computers working well. We also do regular virus checks and run spyware programs as well.

Just a few ideas that work for us.

jdscott50 said...

Very cool thanks for sharing this. I find that libraries that don't have IT people assigned will have a brave soul willing to make the technology work. I commend you for that.

I like the idea of allowing someone to download a program and then having it wiped clean after each use. I think we could do that at my library with a little tweaking. Thanks for the idea.

Steve said...

I commend the work that you are doing as library techs. I want to pass on some information that may be helpful to you.

First, Clean Slate 5.0 is another program that will allow patrons to install programs and then revert back to original settings. However, Clean Slate has to advantages over most restore programs. All that you have to do is log out. No reboot required.

Further, Clean Slate will receive Microsoft updates and Office updates automatically. This saves the Tech administrative time.

As for Java and Flash updates, Clean Slate can be configured to allow these.