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

Library Public Computer Profile

   June 10th, 2008

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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19 Responses to “Library Public Computer Profile”

  1. Melissa Kiser Says:

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks, this was a good article and I’ll send it to our network people. They found your Firefox article very helpful.

    For wifi printing we use something called PrinterOn. I’m not sure how it works because I didn’t install it, but you can try it if you go to http://www.acpl.lib.in.us/wifi.html. You can print to one of our printers in Fort Wayne. I tested it and I can print from a laptop to the printer at the Fort Wayne Hilton…weird! If you need more info, please e-mail me and I will pass it on to the guy who installed it.

    Melissa Kiser
    Allen Co. (Indiana) Public Library

  2. NISMO Says:

    …and if you’re looking for completely FREE and powerful CD/DVD and Blu-Ray/HD-DVD burning application you’re welcomed to give a try to StarBurn from Rocket Division Software.

    Just in case here’s an URL:




  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    Thanks for the tips guys – Envisionware I think has a solution, too, which we’re checking into since we use LPT:One. If that doesn’t work out, though, we will definitely be shopping around, because this is a service patrons are asking for.

  4. roshan Says:

    i m studant for computer scince

  5. Joe Stude Says:


    Just ran into this post today after commenting on your original “Firefox in the library” post. Wish I’d been tuning in earlier when this is a little more current, but such is life. 🙂

    I’ve got some comments:

    Directory shortcuts: Ours are pretty similar to yours, including My Documents, but the tricky part is that since we’re running SAM as our print/time management client, anything saved in My Documents is only going to remain until they log out of SAM (which causes the contents of that folder to be purged). Thus, if patrons ignore the warnings that their session is running out of time and they haven’t been saving their work to a removable device, poof it’s gone. However, if they save to the desktop their documents still remain after they’ve logged out, which is a privacy issue. It’s always such a balancing act. 🙂 Do you allow saving to the desktops?

    Resolution Switcher: We’re still sitting at 800 x 600 for the desktops, so this sounds like a real winner. In your experience has it proven easy for patrons to use?

    OpenOffice: As fond as I am of the Open Source movement and of the ideas behind Open Office, in practice I’ve been fairly disappointed with OO. I ran it for about a month on my home PC and after putting it through the rigors of a college student workload I found it wanting in a lot of ways. Things that are easy to accomplish in Word and Powerpoint for example are buried, in different locations, or much more difficult to pull off (for example – look ‘page numbering in Open Office’ up on your favorite search engine if you’re morbidly curious). I can’t really see this being a feasible option for the public right now based on my experiences.

    Adobe, flash player, et al: We’ve learned that you have to start just about every application you install on a public PC to clear those initial “I agree” dialogs. Also, though in some apps they’re buried or difficult to get to, all these apps do provide a way to disable auto-updates. It’s all about trying to keep the patron from being barraged with unusual dialogs or popups. 🙂

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Joe: A few comments – as for patrons saving to the PCs. We use Deep Freeze and Windows Group Policies to handle this. The Policies let us restricted people to the Desktop and My Documents, and Deep Freeze deletes whatever they’ve saved when the computer restarts. So yes we do let people save whatever they want to those locations, but it is up to them to log out (and thus clear their data). Computers also automatically restart after 15 minutes of inactivity.

    For the resolution switcher, patrons seem to love it, and I have not had a single complaint or problem.

    I’m with you on Open Office/Microsoft Office. I tried it at home many versions ago, and was just too MS Office-trained to be able to readjust myself. I’m afraid patrons are the same way, and anyone used to MS Office would have difficulty with Open Office. I have been keeping up with product comparisons, though, and it looks like they are converging. I keep options in the back of my mind (along with Userful and Google Apps), and just stick with the path of least resistance. Here are a few reviews:

    And as for browser plugins, you’re absolutely right about being sure to open and run everything before “freezing” the computer. Those little warnings are annoying once, let alone every single time someone uses the computer. We also try to turn off as may browser warnings as possible, too, but I always find some we missed.

  7. Joe Stude Says:


    The biggest reason we’ve stuck with 800 x 600 so long is for patrons who are older and have problem eyesight. Our only reluctance in implementing the resolution switcher ASAP is older patrons approaching a PC that’s been switched to 1024 x 768 and needing assistance to switch it back to something they can read easier. You’ve really had no issues with this at all?

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    For the people with who resolution was an issue, I did have to explain how to do this right after it was implemented. And every once in awhile since, someone will ask if we can make their screen bigger.

    It’s nice that Deep Freeze makes sure that desktop shortcuts are always in the same place, so the patrons who like the resolution switcher always know where to find it. Also, I have a few patrons who are big fans of [Ctrl]+[+] in Firefox, or [Ctrl]+[mouse wheel], to increase the text size.

    As long as people have the option to make the computer comfortable for them, and they’re shown how to do it, we’re going to keep trying to inch forward to keep pace with modern standards. On the whole though, this has been one of the least noticed changes we’ve made.

  9. Philip Willems Says:

    Hey Brian,

    You said:
    We’ve talked about switching to OpenOffice, but MS Office is cheap for libraries and our patrons are comfortable with it
    OpenOffice is for free so even if MSOffice is cheap it’s still more expensive then OO. Besides if you want to teach your patrons something as a public library, you should teach them that open source and open standards are what a public library stands for 😉
    As a pdf-creator we use PrimoPDF, it creates and even copyprotecs the document

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Philip: I agree with you that open source software is very much in line with public access to information – good point, in fact. But many of the patrons using our public computers have a tenuous grasp on technology, at best, and Open Office is just different enough than Microsoft Office that the shock of change would really be a barrier for some people (the switch to Firefox ruffled some feathers, but at least it still had a big green back button arrow).

    Moving forward, I’d like to incorporate more OSS into the library, but a decision like that (for us) is based more on the cost of staff time and patron ease-of-use than on software costs.

    And thanks for the tip on PrimoPDF – PDFCreator has worked well for us, but I’m always on the lookout for something new.

  11. David Smith Says:

    I enjoyed your information, being the IT Specialist for a major military installation library. But, I really think the answer to many of these issues is to move to the “next generation” platform (which is really a decades-old platform) of thin/smart-clients; Sun Microsystems Sun-Ray system comes to mind. However, this setup can be done much more cheaply, depending on the organization’s required applications. Ideally, there should be at least two application servers hosting all the required applications (one spare server for redundancy/fail-over and the main server). Of course, this scenario would require the initial costly investment in Microsoft client licenses. If the organization opts for a non-Microsoft environment, then Cross-Over Office, Samba Server, etc. could be used. Even if MS-Office is required, Wine has proven effective running MS-Office 2007.

    In any case, you have provided several notable and usable concepts for the many IT support staff who face the unique issues of shared/public computers.

  12. Brian Herzog Says:

    @David: it’s funny, but it does seem like we’re going back to terminals/thin clients. In fact, my library’s public computers are 7+ years old, and we’re looking at replacements that the Town’s IT department would remotely administer. Cheaper cash outlay-wise, no doubt, but I’m still skeptical whether or not it’s good for patrons (or just easier for staff).

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