or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

AAA/Posit Science Donates Headaches to Libraries

   February 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

car wreckIt's always sad when good intentions cause problems. This seems to be the case with a donation Massachusetts libraries are receiving from AAA Southern New England and Posit Science.

Massachusetts is considering requiring older drivers to get retested to keep their driver's license. To help prepare drivers for this possibility, and to help all drivers in general, AAA of Southern New England has partnered with Posit Science, a brain fitness software developer, to provide libraries in the state with $1 million worth of free copies of their DriveSharp software for our patrons to use (read press releases).

Considering the emails and other chatter I've seen on this program, here are some of the things that went wrong:

  • AAA seems to have announced this to its members before mentioning it to libraries, because many libraries are only finding out about this program when their patrons ask for it
  • Libraries are receiving two copies of the software on CD-ROM, and AAA/Posit Science is suggesting we install one on an in-library computer and let one circulate
    • CD is a horrible format for software - I will fight for my fax machine before I lift a finger to save the CD format
    • Most libraries use Deep Freeze or some other software that prevents any data being saved session-to-session; it appears this software is only useful to patrons if their progress is saved
    • Most libraries cannot dedicate one of their public workstations to this software - which is almost required, because if a library installs this on one of their internet workstations, you just know that any time someone comes in to use the software, someone will be on that computer checking their email or something
  • The software is limited by the number of licenses
    • Each library was sent 25 license codes, and the company recommends library staff include one code with the CD each time it gets checked out. There's even a place that says "Librarian: Put license code sticker here"
      • Except they didn't send the license codes printed on stickers - just a sheet of paper with 25 code numbers
      • This means library staff need to pay for the stickers and spend time typing them up
      • And the codes are something like P423ZY78Q which means there is plenty of room for transcription error
    • Putting a sticker on something might not sound like a lot of work, but it is prohibitively labor-intensive for most libraries, not to mention a new layer of complexity having to track this particular CD and apply the sticker every time it circulates
    • And after the 25 codes are used, the CDs become useless unless we contact them for more codes

A $1 million donation is great and incredibly generous - but I'm sure many libraries are just throwing these CDs away instead of deal with the hassle of offering them. I don't know if libraries were consulted beforehand or not, but I doubt it.

A much simpler execution would have been to make this software available online - no CDs to pay for or fuss with, less cost of mailing everything to libraries, and patrons could use it on any computer.

Besides: I know this is a useful free tool, and available to everyone. But, if a tax software company (or any company) sent us a free version of their software on CD and said, "hey, install this on your computers and lend it out to patrons," should we rush to do that?

I don't mean to whine about how complicated it is to be a librarian, but most people don't think about what it takes to offer a whole lot of stuff to a whole lot of people. User Experience needs to be evaluated at every step of the chain, not just the beginning and end. Maybe this was the easiest thing for the company to produce, and maybe it's the best software in the world. However, most end users will never see it, because the middle of the chain - the distribution points (libraries) - don't have the time, staff, expertise or inclination to deal with it.

Bad UX. Sadly, it sounds like much of that $1 million donation was completely wasted.

And of course, since AAA is telling their customers to get this CD at the library, we either deal with the headache of processing and offering it, or the headache of telling patrons we don't have it.

In my library, we decided to circulate one of them and keep the other in reserve in case the first disk is lost or damaged. We're also including the entire list of 25 codes, and asking the patron to cross off the numbers as they use them, instead of messing around with stickers.

UPDATE 2/11/10: I've spoken with both Steven Aldrich from Posit Science and Mary Maguire from AAA Southern New England, and they are both researching some of these issues on their end. Hopefully I'll soon be able to post more information on how the software works and a few circulation models some libraries have found successful.

UPDATE 2/22/10: Steven Aldrich pointed me to a presentation of some models libraries can use to offer this software, as well as how to make it work with programs like Deep Freeze. Very helpful - thank you Steven. Also, check out his blog post for more insight on this program.

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