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




Free Alternatives to Bestselling Software

   June 4th, 2009 Brian Herzog

free as in beerI saw this post and liked it for two reasons:

  1. I use a lot of this free software, and although I trust it, for some reason it makes me feel better about using it knowing that other people do too
  2. For libraries looking to expand their public computer offerings or security, these are no-cost ways of trying things out. Also, resources like LiveMocha (and others) are good to know about to supplement library services

Amazon's bestseller lists are always intriguing - putting the "buyer's advisory" twist on it, and with all free software, no less, is neat.

Via iLibrarian (<---subscribe to their feed, really)



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/22/09

   February 28th, 2009 Brian Herzog

zoomtext large print keyboardThis question actually took place months ago, but was only recently resolved.

An elderly patron came to the desk and asked about email. She said her grandchildren all wanted her to get an email address, but she didn't know anything about computers.

I took her over to a computer, intending to help her sign up for an email address. However, when the patron said her eyesight was too bad to read the computer screen, I decided to move to our large print workstation.

The "large print" workstation is more or less the same as our regular computers, except that it has a much larger monitor, and it has the Zoomtext software to make reading the screen more comfortable for people with low vision. The other difference is that it is located in our large print room, so the atmosphere is more quiet and calm than the computer area.

We sat down, and I fiddled with the mouse and keyboard to adjust the screen text so it was at a size she could read comfortably. At that point, I sat back and started saying things like "okay, now use the mouse to point the arrow there..." and "type mail.yahoo.com in the white bar..." I could tell the patron was understanding what I was saying, but was still having trouble.

I asked her if the screen was clear enough, and she said,

I can see the words on the screen just fine, but I can't make heads or tails of the keyboard.

It turned out, even though we tricked-out the software, we neglected to make one very important piece of hardware "large print." The keyboard was the same type we used on the regular computers, and the small white-on-black keys were just not something this patron could read.

I brought this up with the library's IT person, and she asked our Friends group to purchase a real low-vision keyboard. It took a few months, but they came through, and we have a new Zoomtext large print keyboard hooked to the large print computer.

It's kind of an embarrassing oversight - at least it was for me when I was trying to help this patron. I don't expect to be able to anticipate every need and requirement, no matter how hard we try - that's why it's important to get feedback from real patrons (and pay attention to it and act on it).

I've seen some patrons using the new keyboard, and the few I've talked to are extremely happy with it. They'd been making due with the old one, and it never occurred to them to ask for something else. I feel better knowing there is one less barrier for these patrons, but one older gentleman summed it up perfectly:

It used to be that typing was a struggle, but now email is actually fun. Or rather, it probably will be when I understand what I'm doing.



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Library Public Computer Profile

   June 10th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library Public Computer DesktopThis 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 Desktop

  • 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
  • Firefox Internet Browser - Read more about using Firefox
  • 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:
    1. Microsoft Group Policies, for controlling patron access to the computer itself
    2. Symantec Enterprise Antivirus to keep out virus and malware
    3. 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.



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On Open Source

   February 18th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Site Made With Recycled Code logoI meant to post this last week, but better late than never, I guess.

I read on Slashdot that Saturday, Feb. 9th was the 10-year anniversary of open source. The hows and whys of are explained well by Bruce Perens in his State of Open Source Message: A New Decade For Open Source.

But when it comes to open source, I'm more interested in the end result, the applications other people built that I can use; I just take for granted that Open Source is alive and well and will continue to be (I know this is a dangerous assumption, which is why I try to contribute in any meager way I can).

Which brings us to another post I saw last week, this time on iLibrarian, highlighting 50 open source alternatives to propriety software. It's amazing when you look at them all together, but there seems to be an open source option for pretty much any computer-based task. The category list is:

  • Basics
  • Office Suites
  • Office Tools
  • Productivity
  • Graphic Programs
  • Web Editors
  • Publishing
  • Communications
  • Media
  • Utilities
  • Security
  • Financial

Using open source isn't just about using free software; it's about being able to build on and customize software according to how people work, and about sharing with people instead of profiting off them.

Without open source software, you wouldn't be reading my blog right now. As my little icon above says, this is a site made with recycled code. Thank you, open source developers.

update: And to bring this all back around to libraries, Tame The Web just linked to LibLime's Open Sesame blog, devoted to using open source software in libraries.

update 2: This has appeared in a few places, but I thought it fit in with this post, too - Open Minds, Open Books, Open Source describes library using (actually, embracing) open source tools.



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