Most libraries now recognize that public access computers are essential to providing excellent service to patrons. Managing these computers has become a major responsibility for library staffs. Patrons expect to find secure and well-maintained computers that have simple, stable, and predictable interfaces.
In my capacity as assistant director for Information Systems at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas (UT Southwestern) Library, I have grappled with public access computer issues for years. Ten years ago there were few software tools available; however, today there are many easy-to-use and cost-effective alternatives to help manage public access computers.
Tools to Help Manage PACs
I'm about to describe a representative sample of software tools in several important categories. This article does not attempt to address all programs in all software management categories because there are too many products to do that. I'll discuss specific products from specific vendors, but won't recommend any. You should do further research and make a purchase decision appropriate to your environment. Most of the software discussed in this article is available for testing prior to purchase. Some of the programs are free.
The categories of management software that I will address are setup software, security programs, integrity maintenance software, browser control tools, antivirus software, anti-spyware software, patch management tools, session managers, print management systems, system utilities, and some Microsoft software options. However, I won't address filtering software, anti-spam software, privacy tools, network trouble-shooting tools, firewall software, and some other categories of management tools in this article.
I prefer an iterative method of developing a new computer configuration. Richard Wayne's Iterative Development Methodology goes something like this:
* Start with the best available hardware. The new hardware ideally consists of identical models to minimize deployment issues.
* Talk to library and information technology staff and patrons, and then create your first hardware and software configuration for testing.
* Place the configuration someplace where you can gather further staff feedback.
* Develop a second computer configuration based upon staff feedback.
* Place the configuration in a location to gather further staff and patron feedback.
* Develop a third configuration based upon staff and patron feedback.
* Place the configuration in a limited number of locations for further staff and patron feedback. Further revise the configuration if necessary after usage.
* Replicate the revised configuration by replacing the old configuration with the revision.
Once you have developed your final configuration, preserve it. Make a copy of the configuration and place it on a server, another computer, an external hard drive, or a DVD. Then you can replicate your configuration using software tools like these:
Symantec Ghost can back up, store, and replicate configuration images. PowerQuest's DeployCenter has superseded PowerQuest's Drive Image Pro and can also help deploy software configurations. In December 2003, Symantec acquired PowerQuest.
Develop a test environment if possible. Then you can try various software packages without impacting your production systems. Your test environment should mimic your production environment as closely as possible. Microsoft's Virtual PC 2004 can help you to emulate several operating system environments on a single test computer.
I will discuss security programs in two sections. Those that prevent patrons from intentional or unintentional mischief and access are presented in this section. The programs that clean up the potential clutter after patron sessions are listed in the next section ("integrity maintenance software"). …