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Using Firefox On Our Public Computers

   May 8th, 2008

firefox logoMy library is in the process of re-doing all of our public computers. One major change we're making is to switch to Firefox for our web browser, instead of the Internet Explorer/Public Web Browser combo we've always used.

The reason we're 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:


  • Public 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, Answers.com, 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
  • Update 5/30/08: Print Preview - We realized that we had forgotten to put the Print icon on the toolbar, and then that Firefox didn't seem to have a native Print Preview toolbar icon. This Add-On gives us the Print Preview icon

Options Settings

  • Turn off all automatic updates - we use Deep Freeze, so we do our own updates
  • Turn on smooth scrolling
  • Turn on check spelling
  • Set homepage to our Reference start page
  • Always save downloads to My Documents
  • Always show tab bar
  • Turn off all warnings, except when redirecting from secure to an unsecure page
  • Don't remember anything, delete cookies and clear private data when Firefox closes

Other Customizations

  • Disable mailto: links - one repeated tech question from patrons is "I want to send an email but I'm getting some connection wizard." This happens when someone clicks a "mailto" link on a webpage, and Outlook launches as the default email program. Since patrons need to log into their own web email to send messages, making nothing happen when someone click a mailto link is actually an improvement
  • We also took whatever steps we could think of to ensure computer security and patron privacy - this means not keeping any history, and making sure that when Firefox is started, it does not restore from a previous session
  • Update 5/30/08: Add the Print and Print Preview (see Add-Ons above) icons to the toolbar (we chose to use icons only and not text because it used less room)

A lot of these were judgment calls, and there is no single right way to adjust your settings. Also, there're lots of other useful Add-Ons out there too, and more at https://addons.mozilla.org. If you have any suggestions for security or usefulness that we didn't include, please let me know in the comments.

Update 5/15/08: I've had a couple questions about Public Web Browser, so I thought I'd elaborate. It is a great product that works with Internet Explorer (or other browsers, I'm guessing) to lock it down and make IE more applicable for a public library computer. It has always done exactly what it was designed to do, and the librarians who developed it provide wonderful service. Our switch to Firefox has nothing to do with PWB - we just prefer Firefox to IE.

Update 5/30/08: Added an Add-On and toolbar setting to make it easier for patrons to use Print and Print Preview.

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32 Responses to “Using Firefox On Our Public Computers”

  1. steve Says:

    If you used Clean Slate for your system restore instead of Deep Freeze, Microsoft windows would update automatically. No need to schedule down time.


  2. Graeme Williams Says:

    Firefox has a feature where it will restore all your state (cookies, passwords, …) after a crash. I’m not sure whether this can be disabled or not — I’m stuck in front of IE at the moment.

    I noticed this when it happened to me at the local library. (Which reminds me I should tell THEM as well as you!) I think in that case the triggering event might have been the session timer going off rather than a hard crash — our library has short-term use PCs that run on a timer.

  3. Graeme Williams Says:

    To stop Firefox saving session state, set browser.sessionstate.enabled to false. You really want to do this, since otherwise next time it runs Firefox will (offer to) restore the state of the previous session (i.e., possibly the previous user) under any circumstance other than a normal exit, including if the previous user logged out without closing Firefox first.

    Since you do allow some downloading, you might think about deleting the downloaded files and emptying the recycle bin on logout. You can add a script to be run on logout by editing your group policy, which in the simple case you do by running gpedit.msc. The parameter to be edited is User Configuration -> Windows Settings -> Scripts ( logon / logoff).

    In a standard Windows XP system, the recycle bin can be found at C:RECYCLER. This directory is hidden, but CD C:RECYCLER still works. It contains a number of hidden directories, which you can see with DIR /AH. I think you can empty the recycle bin with DEL /F/Q/S C:RECYCLER* — but be careful!

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @steve: We’ve had such consistent good luck with Deep Freeze that we’re reluctant to tamper with something that works. And doing manual updates lets us make sure we get one what we want and that everything plays nice. However, speaking of Fortres Grand, we are switching our timer software from Library Geek to FG’s Time Limit Manager – more on this in a future post.

    @Graeme: thanks for the tip and instructions. I know that we found a way to disable this restore feature, but I forget how we handled it. Your method sounds very reliable, though, so I’m going to double-check and make sure we’re doing it this way.

    Also, another person sent me a link to Andrea Mercado’s Hacking Firefox post, which is great reading. Thanks, Rich.

  5. Phil Bradley's weblog: Using Firefox in public libraries - why you should Says:

    […] to the lumbering beast that is IE. There’s an excellent article from the ‘Swiss Army Librarian’ Using Firefox On Our Public Computers. It gives them more control over the browser, it’s easier to use, it’s more helpful for searchers, […]

  6. links for 2008-05-12 « Spinstah Says:

    […] Using Firefox On Our Public Computers Nice rundown of how to customize Firefox for public computing environment. (tags: libraries firefox tips tech technology) […]

  7. leeleblanc Says:

    Good stuff! Makes me want to get my post on pushing FF into overdrive done.

  8. Bill Trzeciak Says:

    For older eyes like mine and the seniors to whom we teach the Computer Club for Beginners in my library Firefox’s characters are mushy and indistinct compared to IE. I love what Firefox stands for, but it must become more accessible to the full range of people before I will use it at the library. The younger librarians use it at the desk but I have to switch to IE to see letters clearly.

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Bill: I’ve never noticed a mushiness, but I don’t use IE very often to compare. When the text size in Firefox is hard to see (or I want to show a patron on the other side of the reference desk something), I either hit Ctrl and the + key, or Ctrl and spin the mouse’s wheel, to make the text size as big as I need.

  10. The Browser War « The Geeky Librarian Says:

    […] more people bothered by that?) I just hate the thing.  Which is why I was so happy to see Brian Herzog’s write up on his library’s total migration to Firefox.  And they get bonus points from me for […]

  11. cybergrunt Says:

    Really good to see you’re making the move to Firefox. I’ve been using it in my academic library for about 4 years now and it is the default browser.

    I don’t use any freezing type program. I lock down our public computers (all 400+ of them) via a combination of cloning, using mandatory profiles and group policy which I find is a lot easier and cheaper than shelling out for extra applications.

    Good luck with Firefox, I have very few problems with it.

    :librarykaos: [http://librarykaos.blogspot.com]

  12. Using firefox to improve customer satisfaction « Sno-Isle ILS Project Says:

    […] on May 20, 2008 by Jim McCluskey Brian Herzog has an interesting post on how his library is replacing Internet Explorer with Firefox because it allows them to improve the browsing experience for patrons by allowing a number of […]

  13. mlibrarianus Says:

    Here, here! Congrats on going with Firefox. You will not regret it.

    We’ve been using Firefox exclusively as the browser on our PACs for about 3-4 years. We’ve run into a few sites that unfortunately didn’t work correctly in Firefox because the web designer (use that term loosely if you are stupid enough to not adhere to standards) made the site for IE only. Interesting thing is almost every site we’ve contacted and explained the problem to(also talked about web standards and how if you adhere to them your site can be used in ANY browser) changed their code to meet standards. Next step is to move to Linux so you don’t have to deal with all the Windows updates, problems, bugs, viruses, and issues.

  14. Phil Shirley Says:

    Thanks for the awesome post. Disabling mailto links is good, but I wonder if there’s an even better way to deal with them. I dream of having a program or script as the default mail client that, when you click on a mailto link, would open and give useful info about the link (the “to” and even sometimes subject line in the link) plus explain what to do, perhaps even with links to some popular mail sites.

  15. FIKSZ :: K2 Webzine » Archív » Firefox (újra) a könyvtárban Says:

    […] eredeti bejegyzésben Brian Herzog ajánl beállításokat és kiterjesztéseket, hogy a legnépszerűbb alternatív […]

  16. Open Sesame » Blog Archive » Firefox on Public Computers Says:

    […] Brian Herzog writes an interesting piece about how his library switched the browser on their public computers to Firefox. My library is in the process of re-doing all of our public computers. One major change we’re making is to switch to Firefox for our web browser, instead of the Internet Explorer/Public Web Browser combo we’ve always used. […]

  17. MJ Says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’m going to try them at my library, but I wondered if anyone knows of a tool to redistribute the Firefox installation to all the other computers once everything is installed and configured? It would be easier than doing all those steps listed above on every PC.

  18. Brian Herzog Says:

    @MJ: no, I haven’t seen anything like that. Public Web Browser does use an ini file that make it easy to manage multiple installations, but I haven’t seen (or looked for) anything similar for Firefox.

    What we use to build our computers is the ghost software from Symantec. The library’s IT person and I made one computer the way we wanted it, and they cloned out that image to the rest of our PC’s.

    For the most part, it worked okay, but we (well, she) went through some trial and error before everything worked properly. For instance, she was able to install and the Firefox plug-ins on the master, but had to turn them on after a PC was cloned for them to work right. We also learned that she had to install Deep Freeze, our timer software, and our pay-for-print software on each individual PC after the cloning, too.

    And we’re still experimenting.

  19. Rick Says:

    I agree that Firefox is a better browser than IE. But, IE still out-foxes Firefox when it comes to dealing with RSS Feeds. Using default RSS Feed functionality of the browser without using a third-party news reader, Firefox doesn’t show the pub-dates, categories, doesn’t allow for sorting and filtering, etc. I do hope Firefox will come around and upgrade those issues without forcing the user to have to install additional software or sign-up to yet another website to have basic RSS feed functions available. Otherwise, yes, Firefox outclasses IE by far.

  20. imPACt Blog » Technical Difficulties Says:

    […] and how frequently these need to be updated. I was also intrigued by the post he linked to on switching browsers from Internet Explorer to Firefox. I’ve long wondered myself why the computers at my public library only run IE, given that […]

  21. Bibliobsession 2.0 » Pourquoi ne pas proposer Firefox sur les postes publics des bibliothèques ? Says:

    […] réponse est dans ce billet en anglais : Using Firefox On Our Public Computers qui liste les extensions firefox à installer […]

  22. Joe Stude Says:


    Cool article. Thanks for the info. I work for a small-town library that has already implemented Firefox on some of our public kiosks (which are used for public email access and the like, rather than true internet computers). Our biggest problem is that despite the fact that we are running DeepFreeze, two of these kiosks have been “hacked” in the last month. In an effort to harden the kiosks, we’d like to be able to disable downloads in Firefox completely. In your travels did you come across a way to do this? Thanks.


  23. Joe Stude Says:

    Spent a little time digging through Public Fox and got my own answer. 🙂

  24. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Joe: I’m happy you found it – I was looking around for another solution, but PublicFox does seem to cover it (since all a browser does is download files, all you can really do is limit the types of files, but success there depends entirely upon what kind of hacking is going on).

    For everyone who hasn’t installed it, here’s what the PublicFox options screen looks like (view larger on flickr):

    PublicFox Options

  25. Joe Stude Says:

    Incidentally, have you ever had any problems with Menu Editor? We had to pull it out of the configuration at the last second before a redeploy because even though I definitely had the latest version installed, we were experiencing occasional incompatibility problems with it and Firefox 3.03 (which, according to everything I’ve read, shouldn’t be happening).

  26. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Joe: No, we haven’t had any trouble. We’re still running Firefox 2.0 though, which might help. I tested our setup with Firefox 3.0 when it came out, and everything appeared to work, but decided to just stick with v2 until we were forced to migrate.

  27. Libology Blog » Customize Firefox for Your Public Workstations Says:

    […] It’s a post that is months old, but the information is just as useful:  Swiss Army Librarian has a guide for Using Firefox on Our Public Computers. […]

  28. Brian Herzog Says:

    Another useful add-on is Auto Reset Browser – it “closes all the windows and open a new browser window after a specified time of inactivity.” Great when a patron walks away from the computer without logging off. (Thanks Ed and Jessamyn)

  29. Technical Difficulties | US Libraries Says:

    […] and how frequently these need to be updated. I was also intrigued by the post he linked to on switching browsers from Internet Explorer to Firefox. I’ve long wondered myself why the computers at my public library only run IE, given that […]

  30. Joe Stude Says:


    Are you using Firefox 3? I noticed the Auto Reset Browser is listed only for versions 2.0 and earlier… We’re in the process of trying to develop Firefox to use as a kiosk browser for our PACs and it’s proving a lot more challenging to accomplish than it was using PWB/IE.

  31. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Joe: no, we’re still on Firefox v2. I originally wrote this post just before v3 came out, and at the time I did install v3 and play with it. However, I didn’t like it as much as v2, and a lot of the plugins we used weren’t yet available for v3, so we didn’t upgraded. And since the setup we had still works, we still haven’t upgraded.

  32. Technical Difficulties | U.S. IMPACT studies Says:

    […] and how frequently these need to be updated. I was also intrigued by the post he linked to on switching browsers from Internet Explorer to Firefox. I’ve long wondered myself why the computers at my public library only run IE, given that […]