Open source public workstations in libraries

An odd topic for me? Well, yes, given that I don’t work in a library and have never spent much time on the public-workstation theme.

But ALA Publishing sent me a copy of the April 2009 Library Technology Reports (v. 45:3), “Open Source Public Workstations in Libraries,” by John Houser–who, until recently, was Senior Technology Consultant at PALINET and handled the technology side of what’s now the Library Leadership Network.

Here’s the abstract:

In a time where an economic downturn and concerns about climate change are influencing decisions, many libraries are looking for ways to save money and to reduce their impact on the environment. This report provides detailed information about the operating systems, software, and approaches used by three libraries and one academic institution that have implemented open source public workstations. It explains how open source operating systems and applications, when installed on appropriate hardware, can decrease power utilization while providing a reliable and satisfying customer experience. It will help library decision makers who want to find out about alternatives to Microsoft Windows–based PCs running Microsoft Office, not only as a means of  cutting costs or reducing a carbon footprint, but also as a means of providing a better experience for library customers.

I suspect it’s worth buying if you’re in a library that has public workstations (if your library doesn’t subscribe to LTR, you can buy the issue for $43). Houser suggests reasons for considering open source solutions for public workstations, describes current open source products that may be suited for such workstations and offers several case studies, considering two of them in detail.

In some ways, I’m a skeptical audience for this report. I question the assumption that older/underpowered computers (inappropriate for XP or Vista but fine for Linux) necessarily use less power than contemporary computers–and Houser’s clearly uneasy with that particular argument.

For that matter, while I think the concept of open source software is great–the Library Leadership Network runs on open source software (MediaWiki), my blog runs on open source software (WordPress), and my primary browser is open source software (Firefox)–I’m also a happy Vista user who has no interest in trading Office2007 for OpenOffice.

But the reasons I prefer Office2007 and Vista at home probably don’t apply to public workstations. For such workstations, a set of open-source tools should be entirely workable and indeed more than is needed–and there’s no getting around the cost savings. Let’s be honest here: If and when I buy a netbook as a travel computer, there’s a very strong chance I’ll buy a Linux system.

Houser writes clearly and knows his stuff. If there’s a major problem with this report, it’s a problem shared by other recent LTR issues: It’s on the short side, with a total of 34 text pages. On the other hand, that also makes it a quick read and easy reference. All in all, a good introduction to one interesting approach (or, really, three related interesting approaches) to providing public library workstation support.

6 Responses to “Open source public workstations in libraries”

  1. Brett Bonfield Says:

    Anyone else get peevish when 34-page reports on open source software are sold for $43? I’m not picking on John, who I like and respect. He has a lot to offer to libraries and he should be able to make a living offering it. But it would be nice to see ALA Publishing move more toward the MaintainIT/TechSoup model (or O’Reilly’s or… there are plenty of examples). A growing number of librarians are becoming open access converts; it would be encouraging if our publishers were working harder to make the transition.

    As for the cost savings currently available by going solely open source for our public work stations, I was surprised and disappointed to find that a strict open source model would have been much more expensive, both in initial and ongoing costs. I expect that to change in the next couple of years, and we certainly make extensive use of FOSS, but for our situation TCO was lower with Vista, MS Office, SteadyState, Foxit Reader, BaseShield, and a few other proprietary packages.

  2. Daniel Cornwall Says:

    Our library uses Userful linux based computers. Overall we’re pretty happy with them. The biggest benefit to us has been able to put a hard stop to new virus infections and patrons subverting our locks to put on new software. Moving to open source also allowed us to offer word processing.

    There are still bugs. There are some things that don’t display well in Userful’s implementation of Firefox, but for the most part it keeps more people happier longer while almost eliminating IT maintenance time on the computers.

  3. Polly Potter Says:

    Open source software won’t be used in libraries that depend on the Gates Library Foundation to grant public access computers.

    Without those grants, I doubt many of the libraries I serve would ever have gotten computers. With the grants comes the Microsoft software. And the need for tech support to be well-versed in fixing it.

    I am glad to know about Daniel’s Userful linux success. Are the details about this published anywhere?

  4. walt Says:

    Polly: Do the Gates grants require that you not install Linux or other software? I wasn’t aware of any such restrictions, although it’s not my field. Or is it that libraries won’t replace the software that’s already installed?

  5. Polly Potter Says:

    The Gates grant requires use of Microsoft software and it is pre-installed. Grant also requires that computers be PACs only; cannot use for staff functions so you can’t uninstall Windows and install Linux.

    Because of the Windows environment, tech support uses Microsoft Shared Computer Toolkit to lock down the profiles to reduce problems with malware/viruses. Techies won’t even install Firefox because MSCT doesn’t work with it.

  6. walt Says:

    That’s useful information. Thanks.


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