Initial Thoughts on the ASUS EEE PC for Public Use

As a big advocate of laptops in public libraries as a way to engage community, it was a no-brainer that I would experiment with some of the latest sub-notebook class of computers, such as the Everex Cloudbook or ASUS EEE PC.   The obvious advantages would include:

  • Reduced costs:   you can pretty much buy anywhere from 3-5 subnotebooks for the price of a regular laptop.
  • Open-source alternative OS:  the “lean and mean” sub-notebook hardware begs for a linux-based operating system, creating a good opportunity to introduce your customers to non-windows alternatives at the public terminals.
  • portability:   unlike regular-sized laptops, taking a lab of 5-10 subnotebooks on the road could be done with a simple backpack (and a back to go with it).   There is a great opportunity for community technology outreach with these machines.

Step one was to convince the powers that be that I need one of these things to play with.   At a mere $399 for the ASUS EEE PC (the one I’m going to speak about today), this was an easy ask.    When it came in, there was enthusiasm all around about this machine from all levels of staff.   It looks good; it can fit in a purse; it’s sexy; it surprises the heck out of people when you say it’s dirt cheap.

The Xandros install that comes with the EEE is intuitive to most I’ve shown it to.    My initial thoughts are that Xandros is fine for most public use.

That said, having asked a few staff about its potential, there are a good number of cons that need to be considered as well:

  • the keyboard, monitor and mouse pad are way too small for anyone with hands larger than a 12 year-olds.   Libraries would almost definitely require a separate mouse and keyboard for these machines.   People with vision issues would need a separate display as well.
  • Xandros is pretty limited for all but the most basic productive uses.   One of the reasons I would want to introduce linux to the public is to have interesting and/or unique software (like noteedit, Emacs, the kde line of software, sqlite etc.) available for use, not to mention Ubuntu’s for-free Assistive Technology options.
  • Installing and configuring another system (like Ubuntu) does require someone with some linux experience (although Justin Gill has done a great job with instructions for configuring wireless in Ubuntu 8 (Hardy Heron).    I’ve also had to reconfigure the wireless after a standard update using the synaptics package manager as well.    This could be quite a pain in the long run, unless you have techie front-line staff.
  • Although not confirmed, the size of the EEE PC does make it a likely victim of a theft.
  • It gets really hot.   It’s not a laptop really, because it’s intended for a table or desk, not your lap.   And using this on a couch, bed, carpet or anything that would block a square centimeter of the ventilation areas would really kill the lifetime of this laptop.
  • No really cool games are available despite the linux distribution you use.    Even if you install XP, it is not likely you will be able to get any large-scale software on it afterwards.    No Second Life.   No World of Warcraft.

So far, we’ve experimented with the EEE PC as a support for ESL classes.   The bottom line is that the computer is too small to be used for most learners in this group.   However, I do think there are some realistic uses for it:

  • It could be a lost-cost alternative for presentations in branches.
  • The keyboard is the right size for smaller children — so a program with educational games seems appropriate.
  • A number of them could be useful as a lab for state/provincial libraries to offer professional development to rural libraries.
  • A combination of a laptop, keyboard, mouse and screen projector could be really good for a one-to-one IT clinic for older adults (and it would still be cheaper than buying a laptop).
  • It could be useful as a lender program, provided that customers will understand that this is a linux-based, teeny-tiny laptop.
  • There is an opportunity here as a support piece for programs as well.   For instance, people who attend our ESL programs often bring their children.    It could be good to hand children a EEE PC while they are waiting for their mom or dad to finish their ESL sessions.
  • Add a wifi package to a EEE and you could provide bibliographic instruction to people who use homebound or books by mail services.
  • The EEE could be good to expand roving reference services, balancing the portability of a hand-held with the usability of a desk/laptop.

In the end, I do not think the subnotebook is going to solve all our problem regarding providing flexible and effective access to information and technology inside and outside the library.   The future is promising, but I need to see a little bit more before I am going to go bandwagon on this model of service.

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What Librarians Can Learn from (and, yes, I’m serious) Accountants

One of my favorite Monty Python works, is the famous “Accountancy Shanty” coming from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. With the lyrics “It’s fun to charter an accountant and sail the wide accountant-sea,” it’s obviously a satirical look at the idiosyncracies of your friendly neighbourhood bean counter.

Five Accountant-ish Things for Librarians to Know

Well, put your accountant jokes aside. Accountants know things that librarians also should know about. Here are five examples:

  • Relevant Costing

The Principle: Poor decisions in the past should not effect future cost decisions.

Example:

A key priority for your library is the quick circulation of books, DVDs and whatnot. You spent $50,000 on a design for a circulation desk that has made your library’s ability to circulate books even worse. Another product comes along that will improve circulation, but involves losing the old design and spending another $10,000. Whether or not you decide to spend the $10,000 would depend on a lot of things, but the most important thing you should *not* say is “but we invested $50,000 in the old machine, we can’t lose it now.”

Explanation:

You can’t take back a bad decision. Mistakes can be embarrassing and hard to admit, but you can make the problem worse by letting past mistakes impact future correct decisions. While you can learn from mistakes, you should do your best to make sure they do not have a continued lifecycle in your organization. Some times its just better to let go.

  • Gross Margins

The Principle: In business, it’s a measure of your revenue over your cost of good sold; in a public organization, you could think of your margins as the value to the user divided by the budget you put into the service.

Example:

There are two ways to see margins in a library context. 1) You provide a service that patrons love, but for reasons outside your control costs keep creeping up. 2) Costs remain the same to provide a service, but the value to the customer drops over time.

Explanation:

Margins are something to be watched over time. In a business, your margins show the “markup” of your sales per-unit. When these decrease over time, it suggests that managers ought to find ways to reduce product cost — usually through innovation of some sort.

In libraries margins are harder to quantify but that does not mean they are not relevant. Seeing an overall service that uses up the same amount of budget, but appears to lack its old lustre is also a sign that creative heads should bang together for ways to improve the service.

  • Current Ratio

The Principle: Your current assets (mostly cash) over your current liabilities (payable accounts etc.) that measures a firm’s ability to cover short-term debt obligations.

Example:

A general rule of thumb for your average business is that your current assets ought to be twice that of the current liabilities. This basically means that if you want to close up shop, you can do so fairly quickly.

Explanation:

Flexibility is a key component of a good library service. The best projects are the ones you can close up quickly when things do not work out, or priorities change. It’s very important to have a few added resources on hand to adapt to user expectations when you are launching something out into the world.

  • Net Present Value

The Principle: You should always take a lump sum of cash now versus the same amount of cash provided over a period of time (present value);  you need to consider the time value of money when you make costing decisions.

Example:

Two vendors are offering an equal product.   One asks you to pay $10,000 up front, with no payments later on; the other wants to charge you $15,000 over 5 years ($3000 per year).   Which one should you go for?

That would depend on one essential variable:  the interest that you could make on the money you spent over time.   With an assumed 5% interest rate, the value of $10,000 in five years would be $15,591 over 5 years.     A $3000 investment over 5 years on the other hand would be slightly less at $15,576.    The bottom line, however, is that you could always take your money and put it into a bank to collect interest.   If your projects do not provide more value over time than what you put into them, then you should not do them.

Explanation:

Understanding the importance of time on the value of a dollar can be very helpful.   Pumping large amounts of money into an investment that will produce the benefit over a long period of time may not be as effective as a sustained small investment with immediate and logical benefits.   While large, expensive projects can certainly boost a resume, you can provide better bang for buck to your patrons by offering simple, adaptable and logical services over time.    That’s why open source hell (offering open source projects that require later investment of resources) may not be as bad as expensive proprietary hell (expensive projects that may stay fresh longer).

  • Opportunity Costs:

The Principle: The true cost of an activity is equal to the value of doing the next best alternative.

Example:

By choosing to go to graduate school for two years to become a librarian, you gave up two years worth of a potential non-librarian job (plus the advances in pay/experience/seniority that go along with that job).    That’s fine if your librarian earnings now make up for that lost revenue;  it’s not if you could have been making more.    Also, you do not have to think about it always in terms of money.   You could think about it in terms of the happiness lost because you couldn’t join the yacht club/drink more beer/start a family sooner.

Explanation:

Anything you choose to do (or not) has a cost in that you could be doing something else with the same time and resources.     Lots of time spent on pet projects with marginal value has a cost equal to that of the project you could be doing if you were not doing the current project.

Innovation can be another factor.   Put your employees to work on mundane projects with no learning value and you could be risking the benefit of skills and knowledge that come with doing exciting and innovative work.   All in all, thinking about what else you could be working on is an essential skill that librarians can learn from accountants.

Summary

Just because people come from a different environment does not mean that libraries cannot learn from them.   Learning from other groups can make librarians better.   Accountants are one of these groups.    Can you think of other professions we can learn from?

National Film Board of Canada Has a Twitter Account

From the Myths On My Shoulders blog, the National Film Board of Canada has opened a Twitter account.

I’m a big advocate at watching what other industries do with services to see what might work for libraries.   While in its infancy, I am pretty interested to see what the Film Board will use the account for.   There may be plenty we can learn from these innovative folks.

A Few Things I’m Noticing While I Twitter

I cannot say that I am completely convinced Twitter has specific library applications, it does have very excellent librarian applications. I can attest to this, as a librarian who loves using Twitter. Like regular blogging, microblogging is most effective when there is an individual you appreciate behind the wysiwyg.

That does not mean people do not have interesting ideas about how it could be used. And certainly, some libraries are using it. Still, as I’ve said about the Facebook universe, I strongly feel that we need to come up with tidy, professional-looking ways of using the technology before we deem it important. I am not putting libraries using Twitter down — in fact, I think they are laying the foundations for the future of the service. I also believe that innovation comes from doing, rather than conjecturing. However, we need an empirical understanding of what Twitter is, how it can be most effectively applied to libraries, and, most importantly, we need to have an honest look at what real success is in this realm.

So here are the things I notice about the Twitterverse, as an experienced user and some thoughts about why these things matter to libraries.

  • I ignore most promotions of all kinds.

Description: I had a few “friends” that do little more than send me links of promotions. The only exception to this rule so far is LISNews, but there are two mitigating factors 1) Blake “friended” me first and 2) I still see the Twitter link as Blake letting me know what’s going on, not as a promotion for the LISNews blog. Even so, what I see in links from LISNews in my Twitter account, I more commonly read from Google Reader anyway.

What Libraries Should Think About: Promotion appears to be the main purpose for libraries using Twitter, but mere promotions of programs are not going to be that successful in the end. If you are going to promote via Twitter, there’s got to be some social goodness there. It has to be fun; it has to be unique; it has to bring more value to me than my tick is bringing to your quantitative success measure.

  • I’m mostly using it from a browser.

Description: Jeremiah Owyang confirmed this a little more empirically. I mostly view Twitter from a website. Sidebars and cellphones don’t cut it for me right yet.

What Libraries Should Think About: Dreaming about accessing the mobile market through twitter is probably a bit optimistic right now. You may get some, but not a whole lot.

  • It’s great as a more disposable yet friendlier version of del.icio.us.

Description: I use delicious alot for bookmarking. I find myself using Twitter to show neato stuff to friends. While delicious seems to have the win for helping me store information I may want to look at later, Twitter is where I go to say “hey guys, take a look at this!” In other words, if I’m not likely to want it later (ie. a “breaking news story”) Twitter’s where I’m going to go with it. I also find that links are just a bit more personalized when I get them through Twitter, probably because they are the sort of things you’d want other people to see.

What Libraries Should Think About: The personal aspect of Twitter is very important. If a library is sending links, it ought to be something the library thinks is special — there has to be a human aspect about it. That’s not an easy thing to pull off.

  • Food/Coffee is a common theme.

Description: Maybe it’s just librarians, but people are always going on about their lunch, coffee, supper, sleep. I wonder what a Twitter search for the word “yum” would bring out?

What Libraries Should Think About: Twitterers have real lives too. You can learn alot about a subject using Twitter Mashups though. For instance, I searched the word “library” in the twittermap application and a whole lot of tags showed up around Philadelphia. I wonder why?

  • It’s about my friends, really.

Description: More than anything, my twitter account is about people that interest me. I choose my “friends” carefully, and usually along a specific train of thought. Actually, I see most of my social sphere as involving different “moods” of my internet access. Facebook tends to be about local and highschool/college friends. Twitter is about librarians. This blog is about libraries on the whole.

What Libraries Ought to Think About: Is there a “mood” within social softwares in which libraries belong? Is the library going to improve or worsen that mood?

  • It’s great for social planning.

Description: When I went to CIL last year, I really wished I had twitter. All the cool cats knew where all the cool events were, and poor old me had no clue. Don’t get me wrong, I had lots and lots of fun anyway, but Twitter is great for keeping up with your acquaintances.

What Libraries Ought to Think About: Twitter is about up-to-date, quick-paced blogging. Twitter ought to happen a few times in a day, and in general, it is better to have a one-month hiatus and then 20 twits in one day than it is to pace yourself with a once-a-week post like you would with a normal blog.

Your Twitter persona happens in a series of post usually happening in one or two days. Your customers’ Twitter experience will change from day to day as some people login and out over time. In other words, it is not unlike a chatroom. A good strategy might be to schedule a day in the week or all-day event where the library will “Twitter” over the course of the day.

  • I always want up-to-date Twits.

Description: I do not look at old Twits really. In that sense, the information on Twitter is highly, highly disposable. If, for some reason I am not receiving my twits, I feel like a twit because I am usually responding to things that are out of relevance.

What Libraries Ought to Think About: Old news is no news. If you are not Twitting often, you should probably not twit at all.

  • I most frequently read twits with an @username attached to them.

Description: Twitter lets people comment on what people say, usually by placing an “at” sign in front of the user name. This draws the attention of a twitter friend. I love this stuff the most, and I often track the old twits by clicking on the @username.

What Libraries Ought to Think About: Twitter is banter — you just have to accept that reality. Humans like banter — it’s ingrained. If you do not want your library to be part of the banter on the web, perhaps Twitter is not for your library. Then again, the *real* question you have to ask is whether your customers want the library to be part of this banter. That’s a hard call, and that’s why I want to see some empirical data on the issue.

Conclusion:

All in all, Twitter is another tool to play around with to see if it works for what your library is doing in the community. From what I’ve seen so far, the Library Twitterverse has been occurring in about the same way that most Library Facebook applications have been occurring. First, interested library techies start “friending,” then come a few library customers. After that, it will either fizzle out or take off. In the end, “how” you use these technologies will matter more than “what” technologies you use.

A Month-Long Change of Theme. :)

Oh yeah, there’s been a hiatus.   Lots of real life going on these days.   But here are some interesting things:

  • I will be presenting at Computers in Libraries on the use of laptop labs in libraries.   This is exciting because fellow Library Society of the Worlders, Steve Lawson, Joshua Neff, and Rikhei Harris are going too.   And there’ll be more I’m sure, though I haven’t seen the whole schedule yet.
  • I changed the theme of my blog for a festive feel.  What do you think?
  • I’m moving my stuff into a new house this month, which is pretty exciting and sad.  I love this house, but for my kids I want to live closer to a school.

Learning 2.0 and away we go!

I’m happy to say that the Halifax Public Libraries have launched their Learning 2.0 program with quite a bit of fanfare, I am happy to say.   Jessamyn West, the ever-so-wonderful Librarian.net blogger helped us launch and she basically knocked everybody’s socks off.

After Jessamyn’s talk, we explained the program and then got people on laptops to play a little with some of the technology.   A few people got finished early, so I gave them some play-doh — which went with the theme of “play” that David Lee King  and Helene Blowers always talks about.

People are pretty enthusiastic about the project.   Even though the first two “things” are just about familiarizing yourself about Library 2.0 & the program, people are already starting their own blogs.

The other embarrassing thing was that people are using the search terms library 2.0 public libraries and getting my “top ten no-brainers” post, which wasn’t my intention at all.     In fact, I hope people look for other things to read and that’s why I provide Jennifer Macaulay’s small little library 2.0 bibliography chock full of excellent posts about making libraries a little more user-centered.