Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Using Open Source to Give Patrons WHAT THEY WANT

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Using Open Source to Give Patrons WHAT THEY WANT

Article excerpt

For our customers, information equaled the library, and information was on the internet.

Howard County Library in Maryland is a busy, exciting, and thriving public library system with the numbers to prove it-in 2006, library door counts reached 2 million visits. As director of IT, I have the best job in my growing county, and I am tasked with managing a respectable budget ($150,000 for fiscal year 2007 and $175,000 for fiscal year 2008) to the fullest.

When I took this position in early 2005, I left a job in records management with Watson Wyatt Worldwide to return to the library system of my childhood. Within hours of finding my new office, I sensed that the library I remembered as a place for solitary retreat, elementary school adventure, and early adolescent angst was different. Don't get me wrong-there were still nooks and books, but what I noticed most were computers, computers, and computers.

My Library Has Changed

There were computers everywhere. I was amazed at the number-about 90 at our central branch alone-with most configured with Linux-based LuMix. LuMix featured a custom-kernel and a stripped down version of Firefox as well as a document reader (XPDF) and Open Office. (To read more about LuMix, see "Living With Linux," Brian Auger, Library Journal, April 14, 2004,

I asked the staff more about the computers and what they were for. The staff said that the computers were for searching the card catalog. This was, after all, the reason Howard County Library had provided computers in the first place. But it was obvious that more was going on. When I asked what else customers were doing, staff members admitted that customers also were reading email, surfing the web, and creating documents. One clear example could be found in the "word processing" computers that were in each branch and that were available to customers who signed up for 1 hour of use a day. Those functions were described to me by staff as "nice to offer-much like a typewriter," but not core to our services.

Now I began to talk to customers to ask how they actually were using the library's computers. Some said they used the library as an internet cafe, chatting with online friends. Others told me they lacked robust internet connectivity at home and used our machines to do research on the web. Others came to view photos of children and grandchildren. Still others shared stories of genealogy research completed on our computers. I began to sense a disconnect between what our staff supported and what our customers required. Howard County Library and its staff provided computers for access to our card catalog. However, customers walked in, saw computers, and assumed those computers were just like their computers at home. Staff could not bridge that divide.

Identifying the Issues

Our information desks were becoming overwhelmed with computer questions staff could not answer, since no training had been available prior to the computers' installation. For a while, "The problem must be Linux" became the standard answer, causing tension between staff and customers. To resolve this challenge, we started an online help desk and tracked every question to help us determine real problem areas.

At the same time, we tried to get more data about what customers did on our computers. We used SmoothWall ( to track internet activity (anonymously) for 1 month. Interestingly, nearly 80% of web activity in our branches went to five websites, listed here in order of number of hits: MySpace, Google, our library catalog (!), Facebook, and Yahoo!.

In addition, we surveyed word processing computer users. We asked these users (each of whom had to sign up for a computer in order to word process) what they were using our computers for. Nearly all were using the machine to develop a resume or complete a job application. (Most respondents also said 1 hour was not enough time to complete this task. …

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