Linux-based public computers still running strong

How policies and software bolster the library's services
Geneva, AL
Marian Wynn

Open source solution

Almost 3 years ago, we published a spotlight sharing how Marian Wynn switched all four of Geneva Public Library's public computers from Windows to Ubuntu, a free Linux-based operating system. The library director knew the small, rural library's aging computers couldn't support Windows XP and didn't want to spend library money to replace them for an OS upgrade.

The decision paid off almost immediately: public computer usage more than doubled over the following two years, and Wynn didn't pay anything for the open-source Ubuntu OS. But problems began to creep in around year three, when some patrons started changing computer settings, installing programs, or making other modifications that created system instability. With only two full-time and one part-time staff member, the library didn't have the time or resources to troubleshoot the computers on a daily basis, and Wynn was forced to shut many of them down for months at a time.

Wynn didn't give up, though, and again looked to the open-source community for an answer to her problems. The free solution she discovered, in combination with clearly defined public computing guidelines at the library, has kept her public computers problem-free and available for patron use — all with very little staff involvement.

Protecting public computers

Wynn struggled to keep her Linux machines running between 2008 and 2009. Her records show that computer usage remained static during this time, most likely due to many of the computers being offline due to technical issues.

Every single day, somebody was going in there and messing things up just for the fun of it," Wynn said. "I was really getting so fed up that I was about ready to take one of these computers and throw it out the window."

After searching for a solution and trying out about a half-dozen disk protection programs, Wynn discovered Groovix, a low-cost, Linux-based, all-in-one patron management and disk protection program. Groovix offered a barebones version of their software for free, and Wynn requested and installed the software on all four of her public machines. She said she was "absolutely amazed" by the results.

Once I got Groovix all set up, I haven't touched it," Wynn shared. "I need to go in and update everything, but I forget to do that because it works so well."

The software resets a Linux computer to its original state after each user session. Groovix will work with a library to tailor its software to their needs, and also offers various levels of support. Wynn gave high praise of the Groovix support staff, who she says were happy to share their valuable insight.

Wynn made use of Groovix's time limit feature to revert each computer to its baseline configuration every hour, which coincides with the 1-hour time limit she started enforcing for public machines. To keep things running smoothly, she created some other public computing guidelines as well.

Setting ground rules

Since her library has just four public access computers and limited bandwidth, Wynn decided to create (and enforce) a public computing policy. As mentioned above, she limits public computer usage to one hour; the fact that Groovix resets each computer after an hour of use serves as a helpful reminder of this limit. Users who bring their own laptops are limited to two hours of Wi-Fi usage — a necessary restriction after Wynn saw how many of the library's few parking spaces were being taken up by patrons who only visited the library to use the Internet for several hours at a time.

"I learned that people will just live here if I don't set some rules," Wynn said.

Wynn and her staff keep track of Wi-Fi and public computer usage through both a physical sign-in sheet. Of course, if someone has a good reason for needing more time on a public computer or using the Wi-Fi, Wynn will allow it as long as they can offer an explanation.

For certain tasks like online exams that may take longer than an hour or two, patrons can use the library's designated test computer — a Mac donated by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — for as long as they need. She said one diligent patron visited the library several days in a row to complete an 8-hour defensive driving course.

Wynn's small staff can't individually tutor patrons who don't have at least basic computer skills, so she added another rule for the technically challenged: bring a friend. "I actually put it in my policy — if you do not know how to use a computer, then bring somebody who does," Wynn said. "If it's somebody who's really in dire straits, we'll bend [the rules]."

Between 2009 and 2010, when Wynn installed Groovix on the public machines and started enforcing the public computer policies, computer usage at Geneva Public Library increased by 15 percent. Wynn says that at this point, all of the public computers are up and running and in constant use during library hours.

"Basically we've reached capacity, so I don't see that number rising much more because I'm getting in as many people as I can in a single day," Wynn said.

Read more about public computer software in the TechSoup for Libraries Planning for Success Cookbook.