public computing: thoughts from the field
Home | Blog | Personnel | Public computing : Thoughts from the field

Public computing : Thoughts from the field

Public computingLibrarians generally don’t like to say “No” to patrons: no, you can’t do this, no, you can’t have this. But they don’t understand the technical challenges involved as we try to preserve and protect public computers so that everyone has a consistent experience. Plus, there’s this whole thing about what is a public library computer for? Users see the computer as “theirs” during the time they’re using it, just like checking out a book for the time they have it, and I get that. But modifying the computer for their particular needs should be approached in the same way we’d react when someone returns a book all marked up, dog-eared, underlined and highlighted for their particular needs but basically trashed for the next person. –Daniel Nixon

A few weeks ago, there was a busy discussion on our state public library tech listserv about whether or not to install coupon-printing software.  Daniel’s quote, above, really got me thinking about the challenges of maintaining technology for the public, when that public can literally be anyone off the street.  I’ve spoken to several techs, from the private sector, that view what public libraries do as total anathema:  allowing unknown people to do pretty much what they want, go where they want, put flash drives into the USB ports, and so forth.  There’s no question that supporting technology for the general public is different than doing so for a private business.

Since I was thinking about it, I asked library techs to share their thoughts on the matter.  Here’s what I got:

  • “I remember in my earliest library techie days, when I was working on my Certified Novell Administrator training, realizing that all my needs ran directly counter to what they were teaching as standard and best practices. I really upset my instructor’s world view.  I share that insight when interviewing and orienting new staff.  We want relative strangers to come into our buildings, have open access to our technology resources, and we want to know as little about them as possible. Yet we want to prevent them from doing anything illegal or unethical.  And we’d like stats.  On the staff side, we also lean toward openness and a lack of rigorous control. The majority of library staff, in fact, use shared computers; trying to rigorously secure and control user rights is pointless and counter-productive.  I strive for a ‘loose fist.’ If you try to clamp down, it’s all going to squirt out between your fingers and you’re left holding on to nothing that anyone wants. But hold it loosely and you stand a better chance of holding it all together.”
  • “Virtual desktop login definitely way to go. manage a single image. in terms of hardware issues – get washable keyboards!”
  • “I have a quote taped to my wall which reads: ‘For some people the library computer will be the only computer they ever own.’ As much as I have a love/hate relationship with that idea IMHO you have to strive to make the patron’s two-hour experience the best you possibly can. And then have the computer ready for the next patron. Wash, rinse and repeat for 12 hours a day 12 months a year. So, over the years we have evolved to a computer with very simple security policies and a way (such as Deep Freeze) to restore it to the default settings. We roll out a really nice computer, keep it updated, and have logical restrictions…think of it as a Wabi-Sabi computer i.e. ‘the best you can do is the best you can do’ and there are just some things that aren’t’ going to happen.  PS: I hate every and all iterations of coupon sites. Since in my experience they support themselves by loading a bunch of crapware.”
  • “One up side of managing public computers is you DON’T have to save user stuff. I’ve worked both sides of this fence (Nabisco Inc.& library) and I prefer the stress of insuring a working computer for the next unknown user to the stress of insuring a working computer to a well-known employee who wants to load and maintain everything he/she comes across in a day’s “work”, and then trying to retrieve the stuff they have somehow lost track of. Public computers are easy by comparison (in my experience).”
  • “Documentation. Documentation and documentation. And I’m not a techie, but I know from an admin perspective, no one remembers what the last tech did or didn’t do. Or, in one case, we had a fresh-faced college grad who did all kinds of high-end tweaks that we couldn’t duplicate or figure out after he left. We also had a sudden death of a tech assistant that left us in a lurch. So, document, document, document.”
  • “Our tech guy left us and we were really scrambling to figure out how he was doing things. Now that I have more of a role in managing the systems, I was able to take my years on the desk and what patrons were asking for/complaining about and actually build a system with the patron totally in mind. The worst thing about my job is that staff are lazy and would rather just ask the “expert” instead of doing simple troubleshooting themselves. The one thing i would tell staff is to at least make the effort of trying to do basic troubleshooting steps (restart a PC for instance) and feel comfortable doing so. And I do tell them this…a lot. I make them fill out tech support requests now and won’t help in most cases unless the staff member agrees to do a ticket.”

What do you think? Post your comments and experiences, below. We really want to know.

There is 1 comment

  1. I think offering up a virtual instance of a PC operating system is an ideal way to give the patron a “clean” computing environment. They should be able to install what ever they like (barring something that would be intentionally malicious) and once they are done, the next user can start off with a “clean” device as well.

    Aside from causing harm to the physical device (keyboard, mouse, screen) they should be able to do as they please in a temporary virtual environment. Just like when I borrow a book from the library, I can picture those characters from the book in what ever way works best with my imagination. When I’m finished, I return the book, un-damaged so the next patron can do as they please in their imagination.

Comments are closed.