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

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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8 Responses to “AAA/Posit Science Donates Headaches to Libraries”

  1. Marcie Brandriff Says:

    As a public librarian I’ve gotten tax forms on CD-ROM and yellow pages on CD-ROM but haven’t installed them because the same information is also available online. “Online” means people can access the information from anywhere – inside the library or at their own homes. It seems like an online version of the DriveSharp software would have been a much better idea, whether in conjuction with a CD or not. Libraries could install the disc or circulate it if they wished, but the user could also access the software/program from home. Also, if it’s available online, the user can sign in with an id/password and there wouldn’t be any access codes to fuss with at all.

  2. Sara Says:

    I love that you guys assessed how important having this program was to you and your patrons (i.e. not very important at all), then came up with a solution whose effort was proportional to its value (i.e. scratching codes off list rather than labels or a digital solution). Not every project needs to be implemented perfectly to be effective, at least as effective as it needs to be! 🙂

  3. Steven Aldrich Says:

    Brian and other librarians –

    As the CEO of Posit Science, I appreciate you bringing up the challenges you are seeing from AAA and Posit Science donation of DriveSharp to libraries. This will be a quick reply and I’ll check with the team here and see if there are other pieces of feedback and solutions to the questions you raise.

    The employees here care a lot of user experience and so we did speak with libraries before implementing the program. We knew there would be some libraries who decided that the program as designed would not be a good fit due to the program being CD-based but the only way to provide the program was via disk as there is not a web version available. We decided that the benefits of providing the software free of charge to people who needed it in order to drive more safely outweighed the downsides of some libraries deciding not to offer it.

    Your solution to simplify the customer experience for the library and your patrons sounds like a good one to allow for people to use the product at home. Do other readers have similar ideas on how to make the process work for you?


  4. Jessica Says:

    We got our copies the same day you posted this – the timing couldn’t have been better! We are going to circulate a copy, but we’re not going to install it on a computer for the very reason you mentioned – it will conflict with our security software. As for the codes, I just cut them out and taped them to copies of the registration instructions. The disk is kept at the desk, so when a patron checks it out, they just get the instructions handed to them – no need for us to keep track of anything.

    I live in a place where the MEDIAN age is 73; I am anxious to see if this disk circulates….

  5. Schalken Says:

    Outside of your hipster world where software is 83 kilobyte “apps” on overpriced cell phones, software still comes on optical media. Not all software can be delivered through browsers, after all.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Schalken: I know, right? It doesn’t get much more hip than fax machines, and to further establish my coffee house cred, I actually don’t own any kind of cell phone (or drink coffee).

    But really, I was speaking specifically of offering software in libraries, and more specifically of software that runs off a CD-ROM. I honestly don’t remember the last time I bought software that came on CD, but anything I download I certainly back up to some kind of external disk – it’s awfully hard to rebuild a crashed computer when all the install files you need are stored on it. Sorry I wasn’t more clear on what I was talking about.

  7. rachel Says:

    I too wish this software was available online. Using it at the library there was the distraction of tutoring going on at a nearby table.
    Question: Would I be able to copy the CD to a flash drive? (my CD drive at home is broken)

    I don’t have AAA but found out about DriveSharp from an 8/5 x 11 sign atop the magazines bookcase at the Groveland library. The librarian present did not know about DS nor was I emailed as promised w/info.
    The next time I was at the library, they were very happy that someone had asked about it & I was given a CD to take out for a week w/a sheet that had a code on a label. Unfortunately, my CD drive no longer works.
    I returned the CD & got to use the software on the library computer it was already installed on. The librarian created an account w/her name & password.
    I saw 2 games were available & was disappointed “others were available on upgrade.” I enjoyed both games, Bubbles more.

    Thank You, Posit Science.
    I am in my 50’s, nervous about driving, into brain games

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @rachel: I’m glad you found it useful, but I don’t know what DriveSharp copyright limitations are. Our copy of the disk is actually missing so I can’t check, but I think you would need to get permission from Posit Science or AAA before you could legally make a copy. Alternately, if you have to use it at the library, perhaps you could find a time when the library is less busy, like early in the morning or later in the evening, and there won’t be as many distractions.

    And yes, a patron asking about this CD would make me happy too – it hasn’t been used very much since we got it.