Examining the uses of open source in the library covers a wide range of items. Here, we will be examining the use of open source Linux derivatives to extend the life of computers donated or considered obsolete by the library.
A word on Linux or OS advocacy.
I would not recommend going with any single operating system in any current library system unless it was Windows. While there are people who are interested in engaging in a fight over which OS is better, that’s not the intention here. I am not aware of a library situation where there won’t be a need to occasionally access resources that can only be accessed from a windows computer, be it a program, or website that only runs using windows specific plugins. Having some windows resources available will be required in any reasonable computing environment designed to make the most resources available to the public.
That said, there would be opportunities to use virtual machines running Windows for those programs (companies like Vmware have a limited set that could be checked out to workstations that required the use of those resources, so it would be possible to maintain a computing system made of primarily Unix or OS X boxes (since Intel based OS X systems can also use the same virtual machines). These virtual machines would run all the programs that regular windows would run, but it would have less access to advanced video processing, so this would not be ideal if there were any gaming workstations in the library that required dedicated video card access.
The purpose I am proposing here is to give the library that chooses this route is simply another tool to add to their arsenal. Some have said Linux is free as in beer. I like the analogy that Linux is “free as in Kittens”. Open Source software requires care and work to keep it working properly, just like a free kitten. Some of the resources that you would need to engage, like newsgroups or Wikis or online forums, may be less familiar resources to your support staff. Make sure they are interested in perusing any issues with a Linux install before proceeding, as this is not a support free environment.
Older computers (primarily X86 computers) May not have the system requirements to run modern versions of windows, or they may be donated without a valid license for windows or word processors used by the library. The idea behind this is that these older computers would be useful as web workstations, basic word processing, and possibly in a computer literacy type lab. Linux computers can run Firefox and Open Office adequately for most users with 256MB ram, and a 500 MHz or better processor, which is less than is needed to run XP or Vista.
Windows Product Lifecycle
Windows XP and Vista are the only currently supported Microsoft operating systems (http://support.microsoft.com/lifecycle). Windows XP (with the latest service packs) and requires a computer with at least 512 MB of ram with a processor speed of 600MHZ or better. Vista requires at least double that for satisfactory performance. Windows XP mainstream support ends in 2009, and Vista ends in 2012. The next version of Windows is planned for 2009. Libraries and other environments will be left with computers that are no longer capable of running windows because of the increasing requirements of supported versions of Windows. Because of security concerns, no version of Windows should be employed at a library once support is no longer available because it will be venerable to known exploits that will not be corrected. Large institutions have the option to run a version of Windows called “Windows fundamentals for legacy PCs” that is basically a stripped down version of XP that will run on some of these legacy computers, but this would only be an option at a large public institution with a site license, as it is not available at retail. A smaller public library would not have access to this version.
Installation of the operating system can include in many distributions an install of Open Office (a Microsoft Office clone), the GIMP (a Photoshop clone) and Firefox. Firefox is a critical part of the mix here, as it is a web browser that is one of the standards in the industry. Flash and other common plugins can be used in Firefox on Linux to enhance the browsing experience.
It’s also an important point to have an experienced user who can help with configuring and maintaining the boxes. The user does not need to be an expert in Linux, but needs to be able to install plugins, and do a few command line tasks and follow instructions, most of which can be found either in the help files included in the version of Linux, or online. An experienced windows user who is used to following instructions online and has used a command line or looked at the registry will not have major issues fixing most issues with a Linux install.
Some Proprietary software won’t work on Linux
If you are using software for computer reservations, Pay to print, or other reservation software that requires client software running on the computer system, its possible there is no Linux client that could be used in this situation.
The Linux operating system at work at libraries.
In the small town of Alpine, Oregon, there is a elementary school that was closed down more than 5 years ago that was turned into a community center, staffed by volunteers with little to no budget (a thrift store run from the school that takes donations from the community seems to be their primary form of fundraising). A small library runs out of one of the larger rooms there that loans books with no library cards. Two computers were donated (or may have been left over from the school that was closed) are set up that provide internet access and word processing. In this all-volunteer and donation environment, the library had installed a copy of Fedora Linux on the computers. Once a patron logged in with the supplied account, there were links directly on the desktop to word processing and internet access. I was able to use the computers with no problems or cryptic error messages, and I would expect that most patrons had the same experience when trying to do basic computing tasks. This town is very close to my wife’s parent’s place, so I have passed through many times over the last few years, and the computers are still running.
Edubuntu in a medium sized Public Library system
Jim Mann from the Greene county Public library in Ohio produced a series of videos on YouTube about creating Edubuntu Linux workstations (http://youtube.com/user/oldcomputermann ). He mostly goes over how to set the hardware up, but he brings up an interesting point I had not seen raised in the other Linux case studies- Edubuntu Linux can run a server/thin-client mode, where the server has a large hard disk, and the client boots directly from the server and accesses files from the server, and does not even have a local hard disk installed. I would expect this to work best in a learning lab type of environment where you could create a sub network fairly easily and have all the computers tied into a router that simply plugged into the server. You could certainly teach basic computer literacy classes on a Linux box as well as any other operating system, most people would want to know how to use the web browser and word processing programs, which would be the things you could show them just as well on the Edubuntu workstations. He also shows Linux running from what’s called a “live CD” which is simply Linux running directly from the CD without installing anything on the local hard drive. This is certainly a possibility but in practice the speed of running an operating system from an optical drive would not lead to a positive user experience. It would have the benefit of being unbreakable from the perspective of since there is no writing to the disk (the CD is mounted read only, things are only stored in memory on the computer) rebooting the computer would completely reset it and fix any issues caused by patron use.
The school library journal also reviewed Edubuntu here: http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/index.asp?layout=articlePrint&articleID=CA6456392 and had positive things to say about applications and installing the program.
Does Linux have a place in every library? Not necessarily, but it can be a valuable tool for librarians who have staff time they can use to assist users with computers. Staff who have the time to familiarize themselves with Linux may not find it more difficult to use than windows in that environment. It’s possible to extend the life of computers that would have needed to be retired because supported Microsoft operating systems would not exist that would allow them to continue running Windows on these computers. Some libraries may not have the resources to replace all of their computers at the same time, and this would allow them to have some extended life on older computers that could still have a valuable use in libraries with limited budgets for hardware.