Notes from the back room of a small rural library: this I believe

I was driving to work one day, down the miles of dirt road, listening to an audio book version of the This I Believe. This I Believe is a radio program of the personal philosophies of folks the what they believe to be true. (Hmm.., you say, I thought this was a tech blog. I'll get there..never fear, but I warn you this will be a looooong train.)

I prefer to listen to audio on my MP3 player than on CDs because CDs scratch so easily and if I am borrowing them from library, I worry I'll mess them up, lose them, or other nefarious things will occur (plus I like to use my MP3 player because it is shiny and slick). I also get free podcasts and such from the big wild internet. I listen to a lot of podcasts as they are part of how I get ideas for the library and other new exciting things.

Anyway, as I was listening and driving I started thinking about my personal philosophies of life and what I would write in a 'This I Believe' essay. That's sort of when it hit me. I believe in access to information. Our library has quite a few steps a patron would have to take to download anything from our public access computers. Don't get me wrong: it is possible, but it is also painful and involves staff help. Great internethe Download computerthe Download computert connectivity isn't a given in our community - it's practically nonexistent. If I didn't have access to the less locked down staff internet at the library, I probably couldn't as easily get what I want, how I want it... my podcasts. And making it hard for patrons, honestly, that is something I don't believe in. The techy-geeky-freedom part of me wanted to give more access to the public... but the library worker part of me, well.. ...images of havoc float through my head:  wallpaper and screen savers changed to god knows what, billions of things downloaded to the desktop... viruses. The computers would be bricks before noon! So, how to allow just the right amount of freedom on a public access computer. (and what is the right amount?)

Our library uses a combination of SteadyState and Winlock (and AVG and a proxy filter and Powerline PC reservations) on our patron access computers.... but now, not all of them. First, we built a fast new computer to be our download station. Well, honestly, first we decided not all patron access computers in the library had to be configured in the same way, and that we could experiment. We strategically located the download station near a staff desk (mine). We put in every imaginable card reader and a USB hub right up top where it was easily accessible without getting on your knees. We put quick links to free audio book download sites. We made sure it wasn't able to see the rest of the network... and then we loosened the lock downs. It still has SteadyState and we activated its timeout feature rather than hook it to Powerline (our open source PC reservation system created in-house) We also kept the hard drive reset functionality. Mostly we loosened up on Winlock using only the mild lock stuff. And you know what? People use it to download things and upload things. Four months and no horrible problems yet, well, matter of fact, no little problems either, unless showing people how to use it is a problem. No killer virus has made mush of its microprocessing mind. The whole endeavor was less of a sandbox project and more of a determination to provide service and of finessing of SteadyState and Winlock (both free, neither open source).

To me, telling folks they can't download stuff or making them jump through hoops to download things is like saying,

You can look at the book, but we don't want your fingerprints to smudge the pages. So if you need the page turned, please get a librarian to unlock the next page for you.

There isn't a perfect technological solution, SteadyState and Winlock are definitely... umm.. awkward as far as usability is concerned, but it is worth messing with. It is doable. And honestly, it needs to be done.

Kieran Hixon
John C. Fremont Library District
Florence, CO