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

An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy

   March 15th, 2011

For the last few years at my library, our public computers all looked the same - Windows XP with a custom wallpaper displaying instructions on how to print. Our setup looked like this:

Wallpaper with printing instructions

A month or so ago, we upgraded to Windows 7, and thought we'd also change the wallpaper.

Our goal in this was to improve patron privacy. The timer software we use is Time Limit Manager (TLM), by Fortress Grand (the little "Time Remaining" clock at the top of the screen above). I like this software because it is very customer service oriented, and patrons don't need to log in with a barcode to start their session - they can just sit down, click "I Agree" to our policies, and go. The timer is basically a courtesy reminder, and for the most part we can get away with using the honor system (TLM does offer additional features for when push comes to shove).

But the main problem we were seeing wasn't that people wouldn't leave the computer - it was that patrons weren't ending their session when they left the computer. This set up the scenario where a second patron could come along and just continuing using the session of the previous patron.

This never caused a real problem in my library, but the potential was there, so we thought the upgrade would be a good time to address it.

With the Windows 7 rollout, we designed new wallpaper, hoping to prompt people end their session when they were finished with the computer. The new wallpaper looks like this:

Wallpaper with privacy reminder

The result? Absolutely no change whatsoever.

I didn't do a scientific survey, but just from the number of times staff has to end the session at an abandoned computer, the privacy reminder didn't seem to affect anyone at all.

I can't believe people aren't seeing this message, so it's tough not to conclude that, at least in my library, most patrons don't care much about their privacy.

So, I wanted to ask the question here - what do other libraries do to get patrons to end their session?

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22 Responses to “An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy”

  1. will Says:

    We use Deep Freeze. Every reboot wipes out any changes made to the PC during the session. Fortres makes a similar product, but I can’t remember the name right now.
    Anyway, we use Deep Freeze and we restart the computers a lot. We’d like to have a more technical session management solution, but we don’t have the combination of money and technical expertise to make that happen right now. It’s far from perfect, but it makes it very simple for our (by and large) not-very-technical staff to get the computers back to a clean slate (come to think of it, that might be the name of the Fortres product).

  2. Marcie Says:

    Maybe users don’t realize they have to click the X to end their session? It’s surprising how many people don’t see the obvious.

    Instead of restarting computers, can you not have the session end when the window closes? Yes, people will accidentally end their sessions earlier than they intend, but it’s less time-consuming than rebooting all the time.

    Maybe a box in the center of the screen with “end session” would be better than the bar at the top?

    In any case, some education is probably in order so patrons know exactly what they should be doing.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @will: We use Deep Freeze too, and I think we have it set to reboot the computer after 10 minutes of inactivity (which we think is the longest someone would reasonable be gone to the printer or bathroom).

    10 minutes is still plenty of time for someone else to sit down amid someone else’s session, but I’m hesitant to shorten it. How long do you wait before Deep Freeze does the reboot?

    And you’re right, Fortress Grand’s product is Clean Slate – we thought about switching, but Deep Freeze works great, so we keep it.

  4. dan Says:

    Pray for a power outage.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Marcie: It might be that people don’t understand they need to click the X to end their session. I’m not sure about ending the session when the window closes, but I like your idea of a desktop shortcut that just says “click here to end your session” – I’ll have to check to see if TLM allows that. Thanks for the good idea.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @dan: oh, those happen a few times a year, and I keep the “The Internet Is Unavailable” sign handy and ready to go.

  7. Marcie Says:

    You say patrons sometimes get up for a few minutes and then come back to the computer. In the meantime, someone else may sit down and continue their session. How about having signs handy — “this computer is in use,” for example — so that others know not to sit down. You can still keep the time away limit to 10 minutes, but at least patrons will still have a chair when they come back.

  8. J Says:

    You mean you have patrons who actually stop using the computer BEFORE their time is up? In my public library experience, it was much more common to have complaints that they couldn’t accomplish what they needed in only one hour.

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Marcie: usually if a patron just steps away for a minute, they leave some application open and up – internet, Word, whatever (not to mention cell phones, bags, coats, etc, around the workstation).

    The weird thing is that everyone knows that, when they’re all finished, to close all the windows they’re using – but few people go the extra step to end their session.

    Perhaps your first comment was right – we just need to better educate people how and why to end their sessions.

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @J: Well, we have a variety – there are people who finish before the hour and leave, and the counter keeps ticking away. But also, with the way TLM works, if the timer reaches the hour and there is at least one other computer available, the timer rolls into “Extra” time, and the session continues.

    This lets people stay on for longer than an hour, provided there is no one waiting for a computer. However, it also means that even if the person leaves, the clock keeps ticking past the hour, until either someone else sits down or Deep Freeze reboots after 10 minutes.

    We also have the case of a computer restarting itself at the end of a session (because all other computers are in use), and people complaining they didn’t get enough time – which could either be that they sat down in the middle of someone else’s session so they really didn’t get a full hour, or else they just want more than an hour.

    What actually happens really depends on the time of day.

  11. J Says:

    Maybe change “Protect your privacy” to “Keep other people from accessing your accounts and documents”?

  12. Martha Says:

    Part of our solution is to set the web browsers to clear all history and information upon exit. Any documents and files saved to the computer are still there until the next reboot (Deep Freeze), but the majority of our use is internet access.

    The time-management software we use (Cassie) also allows us to close sessions and reboot from a staff computer, so staff don’t have to walk over to log off if they notice someone leaving.

  13. Kathy Says:

    We’re about to install the Polaris ILS, and even though we’re very excited about the increased capabilities, we also are concerned that people won’t log off of the catalog. This will be even worse, as other patrons could sit down and not only see but alter the previous patron’s record. It will be set to log them off after 5 minutes, but still…

    Our regular Internet computers have a big red “logoff” button that patrons see when they close down all of their other applications, and most of the time we don’t have a problem with them not logging off.

  14. Victoria Says:

    We’ve found that patrons simply don’t read signage..! In-person instruction when you’re helping patrons sign on or introducing patrons to the library may help get it across better (though listening to helpful instructions is nearly as unlikely as reading them…) /:|

  15. Jon Says:

    I find that most of our adult patrons are good about ending their session; its the younger patrons that don’t seem to care about privacy issues.

  16. Kelly Says:

    We use PC Reservation, from Envisionware, to manage user sessions. PC Res will let you set a time limit for sessions (ours are 30 min.) then will either extend the session if no other patrons are waiting, or shut down and reboot the PC. Deep Freeze wipes everything clean during the reboot, and you’re all set. Works great for us!

  17. Michelle Says:

    We use PC Reservation, which has a lock feature if someone has to wander away to the toilet etc. Sets and unlocks with a user set password. When their session has finished, the PC reboots and wipes the memory. If they lock the machine and don’t come back, it ends the session after ten minutes and reboots etc. Most people who walk away for a short time, use this feature. Privacy protected.

  18. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Martha: We clear all browser history too, and TLM also has the remote-shutdown feature – which I like a lot. Both good things.

    @Kathy: We use Horizon, and I think our logout time is set to like 1-2 minutes – it seems very quick to me. We’re switching to Evergreen, and I imagine we’ll keep it about the same.

    It seems like a big red button on the desktop might be the next best way of reminding people – I found some instructions on how create a shutdown desktop shortcut, and a bit more detail – these are both for XP, and we need a restart shortcut for Windows 7. I haven’t tested any of these yet, but it’s a start.

    @Victoria: agreed.

    @Jon: In that case, maybe the sign should read, “Do you want your mom to know what you were just doing?”

    @Kelly: We’ve thought about switching, but PC Res is too expensive for us right now.

    @Michelle: I like the lock feature – it’s one more thing to train people on, but I think once they knew about it, they would use it. Sadly, I don’t think TLM has that feature, but this is another reason we might have to upgrade to PC Res eventually.

  19. JulieZ. Says:

    Our patrons use their library card numbers to sign onto computers equipped with PCRes…because they are using this personal number to log in, most of them are careful about logging out to “protect their account”. I’m not sure most of them understand what it is exactly that they are protecting, but entering that card number to start makes them wary of leaving without logging out.

  20. AmberKC Says:

    We also use PC res, so patrons have to log in with their library card numbers. They also use the lock feature a lot. Patrons rarely forget to log off, in my experience.

    I think the act of logging in with their card is what reminds them to log out.

    Our sessions are 1 hour long with the option to extend to 2 hours if no one else is waiting. Most of our patrons use up their entire allotted time every day.

  21. Mary Ellen Says:

    First, that’s super hilarious.

    Second, just because I know what “Close Your Session” means doesn’t mean that most people know. Maybe “Click the Red X” would work better, as suggested by another reader.

    Maybe have a contest with the library staff to see who can come up with a wallpaper that actually works.

    You may discover that nothing works, because no on reads the signs. Which would be even more super hilarious.

  22. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Mary Ellen: You’re right, even if we do find the right words, there is still a slim chance it would get read. I like the idea of a contest, but it might work better if we polled patrons instead of staff – that way, the contest itself might have more lasting impact that the winning phrase.