In this funny video, replace "dad" with "library patron" and it's a reference question many librarians know all too well. At least, for the first third of the video - after that, it gets kind of weird and definitely violates the appropriate library behavior policy.
Since the outages caused by the ice storm on Thursday, my library has been slowly reestablishing our affected services. First back up was our power and heat and catalog (day two), then wireless internet (day three), then internet to the public workstations (day four).
This progressive-improvement situation made for a good quote. When asked by a staff person if things were working again, the response was:
Everything is working, but we're still working on making it patron-proof again.
It made perfect sense in context, but when I thought about it later, it sounded both funny and counter-intuitive.
Recovering from an unintended power outage really draws a stark line between having something work, and having something work the way we want it to. Just having a computer that turns on isn't good enough - ours also need to automatically log in, track time, connect to printers and the internet, and protect the user's privacy and data. And ideally, do all this without intervention from the user.
On the surface, the answer above might sound like our goal was keep the computers safe from the public. The goal is actually to make sure the public needs to do as little as possible to use our computers (making sure they can do no harm is a side effect).
This is a follow-up post to "Using Firefox On Our Public Computers" - a few people have asked me what else we have on our public computers, so here is pretty much everything we're doing on our public workstations.
I'm really curious to hear what other libraries are doing on their public computers, so please share your library's public computer configurations in the comments section.
The Background Image - Instead of just having a solid color, we use the wallpaper image to tell patrons how to print (rather than taping the directions to the inside wall of each study carrel). And supposedly, black-on-white is easiest to read, and uses less energy
Directory Shortcuts - We have shortcuts to My Computer, My Documents and the Recycle Bin: My Computer so patrons can access their flash drive, CD or floppy disk, and My Documents to save their work to the hard drive temporarily (see Deep Freeze below). We decided against a link right to the A: Drive, to discourage use of floppy disks
Resolution Switcher - We were having trouble balancing the patrons who wanted 800x600 resolution against the growing number of websites designed for 1024x768, so I was very happy when the library's IT person found ResSwitch. This free program allows patrons control the screen resolution right from the desktop - huge utility (and customer service) in a small package
Microsoft Office - We offer Word, Excel and Powerpoint 2003 (and installed the Office 2007 file converter). We've talked about switching to OpenOffice, but MS Office is cheap for libraries and our patrons are comfortable with it
Meebo Instant Messenger - We put a direct link to meebo.com because so many patrons use it socially or for group work. Also, providing this link is easier than installing and keeping up-to-date local copies of the popular IM services
Quick Launch Desktop Shortcut - Just to make the whole desktop cleaner, we decided against loading up the Quick Launch toolbar (by the Start button) with all the offered programs. Instead, we just put the link to the Desktop there, which, after they learn what it is, I've seen patrons using
CD Burning with Roxio - A few of our public computers have CD burners, and we use Roxio to handle this. I think it came free when we bought them from Dell, but is now an upcharge. Roxio works well (with a handout we made up), but instead of paying for additional copies, we'll use use XP's native CD burning
Time and Print Management
Time Limit Manager - Up until May 2008, we used Library Geek for our timer software. It worked very well for our needs, but it didn't provide statistics. We switched over to Time Limit Manager from Fortress Grand because it accomplished most of what we wanted and gave statistics. We don't require any kind of sign up or sign in, and set the session time for 60 minutes.
What I Like About TLM
One really nice feature of TLM is that it lets the patron automatically go into "extra" time if not all the computers are in use - we liked this because we thought it was unnecessary to kick patrons off if there were other computers available
The countdown clock always shows at the top of the screen (although sometimes I feel like it is pressuring me to be efficient)
When a session is up (and all other computers are in use), TLM automatically logs the computer out. This means that if someone was just sitting there chatting online, it closes everything to give them more incentive to give up their computer to someone else. Also, though, just logging out (rather than rebooting) means that any work saved in My Documents will still be there at the next log in
Supposedly there's a way to end all session when the library closes (or better yet, five minutes before), but we haven't figured this out yet
What I Don't Like About TLM (so far, at least - take all of these with a grain of salt, because I'm still learning the program)
The timer can't be turned off at the workstation - extra time is given via the console installed on the reference desk computers
This control console is a bit clunky, but it gets the job done
The statistics provided are somewhat cumbersome - there's no way to easily see which computer is used the most, or what day/time is the busiest (at least, none that I've found yet)
Printing - We use LPT:One from EnvisionWare, and it meets our needs. We just recently added a color printer for patrons to use ($0.15 for B&W, $0.25 for color), but are still looking for a way to allow wireless printing
Printing to PDF - To allow patrons to create their own PDF files from any program, we installed PDFcreator. It shows up in the printer selection dropdown box, and creates a pdf file patron can then save to disk
Extras and Other
Windows Media Player - We chose to go with WMP because it comes with XP, and works well enough for playing streaming content or music CDs patrons bring in. No desktop shortcut, though, so it only is launched when it is called for by filetype
Adobe Reader, Flash Player, et. al. - It's always a challenge keeping up with the latest versions of all the plugins patrons need, but that's life on the internet. Something we learned, after installing the latest versions, was to open them to get rid of all the annoying "I Agree" windows before turning on Deep Freeze
Screensaver - We decided to go with the standard XP picture slideshow screensaver, but we use it to promote library services and upcoming events. We pointed all the computers to the same network directory where we save jpg images for events (example), and then delete them after the event passes. It was a bit tricky to make the screensaver show up properly while the computer was logged out, but we eventually got it. When we upgrade to an RSS-compatible events calendar, we'll probably switch to a screensaver that can display that RSS feed
Locking Everything Down - For this, the library's IT person uses a three-pronged strategy:
Deep Freeze, from Faronics, to make sure that when we turn the computers on each morning, they are exactly the same as when we turned them on the previous morning. This also means that anything patrons save to My Documents will be erased when the computer is restarted - this is good for privacy reasons, but can also be disappointing for the patron who comes back three days later wondering where their resume went (but this is usually a mistake patrons only make once). There are similar programs out there, but we've never had a problem with Deep Freeze, so we stick with it
Cloning - Once a disk image is configured the way we want it, the library's IT person used Symantec Ghost Solution Suite to clone it to all of our public workstations. It took her some trial and error to figure out the right order for installing software, but any time this does manage to save is worth it
I should also point out that, as Head of Reference, I am, at best, just a supporting role for computer maintenance. It's the library's Head of Technology that does the hard work, turning what I think patrons might need into things patrons can actually use. I'm lucky to work with someone who puts as much emphasis on customer service as I do - thank you, Barbara.