Friday, August 1, 2008

linux for library pcs

In May, I took an old IBM laptop that was destined for surplus and loaded Ubuntu on it to test the usability of Linux OS for library use. This has become the laptop I take with me on road trips. I want to see how it works and I figure it's less desirable for thieves and hackers.

I downloaded a recent stable version of Ubuntu onto my current laptop, burned it onto a CD and loaded it onto the IBM, reformatting the hard drive. This does erase everything you've got on the computer so be sure and backup or move contents before you do this. I have to say that the initial install didn't work. I was given several options, took my best guess and apparently chose the wrong one. So when I tried to boot the new OS, I was met with an error message. Linux doesn't come with instructions. Instead you have user forums. The forum solution for my problem had command line instructions. I chose to reinstall instead, this time making a different choice for how to format the hard drive. The second install was successful. But my initial thoughts were that this may not be for the faint hearted.

Once I've had a chance to work with it, I've discovered some pros and cons.

  • Switching to Linux and open source can potentially extend the life of some old computers. The Ubuntu Operating System came with other open source programs including Open Office. The whole thing was only about 800 MB in size. It doesn't require as much hard drive space, memory or processor power as Windows, particularly Windows Vista.
  • You can do most common computer tasks easily using open source software:
    - Surf the internet with Firefox - wifi connections are easy to set up
    - Do office tasks with Open Office - word processing, spreadsheets, presentations
    - Listen to music, download podcasts
    - Upload and edit photos from your digital camera
    - Work on graphics
    - Watch YouTube videos
    - Open and read PDF files
    - Play DVDs and CDs
  • It's pretty easy to pdate current and download new open source programs. I made this much harder than it had to be until I found out where to go within the system to find more program options.
  • It's pretty secure. Most spyware and viruses are designed to go after Windows systems. Firefox vulnerabilities have been exploited so open source is certainly not invulnerable. But they seem to come up with fixes fairly quickly.
In short,my Ubuntu has performed admirably. Right off the bat, it got called into service at the May Montana Shared Catalog meeting when Sarah's Dell couldn't get onto the hotel's wi-fi connection. My Ubuntu laptop located and got onto the hotel's wi-fi easily. It also displayed web pages, and excel files (with one exception that will show up in the cons) from the internet, and ran PowerPoint presentations off a USB drive. Few knew they weren't looking at a Windows computer.

  • If there are specific programs you have to have on your computer because of patron demand, you want to make sure these programs have Linux versions. Some don't - iTunes and Windows Media Player are good examples. There are open source music players and podcatchers but if patrons use library computers to purchase and download music or video from iTunes or stores that use WMA copy protection, they probably won't be able to access these via open source programs. I haven't spent a lot of time researching this, but I don't think you could use a Linux computer as an OverDrive download station for the above reasons.
  • It doesn't work well with all Microsoft "features." During the MSC demos, the open office spreadsheet program would not open an excel spreadsheet using macros. This isn't a bad thing for security sake, but if you're doing very sophisticated spreadsheet or database work, you'll probably want to stick with the software you're currently using. Neither could Open Office cope with a PowerPoint 2007 presentation at a Parmly program I attended. A Windows computer running PowerPoint 2003 can't open a 2007 file either, but it will give you an option to download a viewer. Open Office can't do anything with them. But being open source, someone might be working on or have even come up with a fix for this problem already.
  • If there's something that's a bit buggy or you really don't like, you're pretty much stuck with it until someone in the community decides to fix it. That is, if you're a regular library user. If you have programming skills, you can get into the open source code and make changes yourself. But if coding's not your strong point, you may feel frustrated if you don't like a current version. And you don't really know when new versions are coming out unless you read the updates.
  • Most open source software does not come with tutorials or much help. If you have users who are already comfortable using browsers or office software, they can probably figure out the open source versions fairly easily. But if you're getting started with graphics design, moving right into Gimp can be a bit daunting. Not that PhotoShop isn't daunting as well, but there is a lot more help available to learn the program.
It's still a Windows world so I think that most libraries will want to have at least a few Windows PCs available. It's what people expect. But putting Linux on some of your older PCs may be a good way to help keep those computers usable and help meet demand for a bit longer. Open source is getting more user friendly all the time. I think that most library staff with a good computer comfort level could use and update it pretty easily. There are also vendors like Userful that will take care of it all for you for a fee. My advice is to give it a try. What have you got to lose? Besides your sanity and for me, that's probably pretty much gone already.

I'd love to hear what others have to say about open source in their libraries.

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