On Donated Technology

This week at work I went back to one of the teeny libraries to help them get their three donated computers running. There is a local insurance company that upgraded and gave the library their old computers. For a library that has two computers total, including the one the librarian uses for all her work, this is a boon. Sort of.

I plugged in the computers and turned them on and was greeted with a Win2K registration screen of the “enter your product key” variety. I asked the librarian if the computers came with software and she said “just what’s on them.” You may have read about this part in last week’s post. I asked the librarian to call her friend and see about the product codes and we’d try again. I work at this library about 90-120 minutes a week. This week I showed up and the librarian said that her friend has said the product key was on the side on a sticker. “Doh!” Sure enough, there were 25 characters and I dutifully typed them in. No go. Turns out the sticker on the side of the machine is a Win98 product code and somehow, mysteriously, these computers have Win2k Pro installed on them. No one knows how. I ran down the options with the librarian. 1) Buy an XP license or three from Tech Soup. 2) Hassle her friend to figure out wtf is up with the software on these computers. 3) Wipe the drives and install Ubuntu.

I’m pushing for #3 and the librarian just doesn’t want to do #2. My friend on IM is pushing for a fourth option, a Linux thin client solution where all the machines run off a central server. It’s an appealing idea but I’m not sure if I can even explain it in a way that makes it sound like less of a risk than a life rich with Windows nonsense. So, we start with #3 and figure we have #1 as a backup. I start downloading Ubuntu and it’s going to take two hours, minimum. My class starts in four hours and it’s an hour away, so this project is going to take at least one more week to accomplish. While I’m futzing with the computers I notice that one of them doesn’t seem to be running the monitor correctly, or not at all. I do a bit of brief troubleshooting and determine that both monitors work but only one CPU seems to work to run the monitor. I look in the back of the computer and notice the vent fan is pointed sideways. I have no idea what to make of this. I do know that if we want to get rid of this computer in any sort of approved way it will cost us money.

Meanwhile we’ve bought 50′ of ethernet cable to wire up the computers in the basement (we’ll pay the electrician to drill the hole in the floor and run the cable), cadged a donated switch from a friend, bought three surge protectors and carried three computers and monitors down a narrow flight of stairs. I spend the last 30 minutes of my time there uninstalling IM clients — well not uninstalling them but setting them not to autorun on boot and not autologin when they start. The librarian was getting a bunch of messages for studman1234 when she started her day. She’s a practical gal, but everyone’s got their limits. I didn’t have time to run Windows Update or do any defragging.

I told this story to a local friend of mine who said “Geez, you can buy a new Dell for less than a thousand bucks, what a headache all of that is.” I had to explain to my friend that the library runs on a budget of less than 20K so a thousand dollar computer (and I think it’s more like $500 now) is not really in their universe for now. I’m sure there are well-meaning people who would love to help the library out, but it’s tough to find the time to sit down and compose thoughful and considered letters to them when you’re open 18 hours a week.

So, I don’t want this to be an entire “looking the gift horse in the mouth” post, but mostly I wanted to highlight that there is a range of costs associated with “free.” Most libraries I know don’t even want to take tech donations because they’re concerned that just this sort of thing will happen. On the other hand most of them are running Gates Foudation hardware from several years ago and they’re thinking about upgrades and considering their library’s future technological directions. Meanwhile I bought an old IBM X31 Thinkpad from ebay and I’ve been messing with it in the evenings to get it running the way I like it with an open source OS and software. It cost less than $300, but that’s only really a bargain if I don’t count the cost of my time. Since it’s a hobby project for me, I don’t, but when I’m on the clock it’s nice if things don’t take forever.

10 thoughts on “On Donated Technology

  1. Great post. I’m interested in tiny libraries. I don’t know what I’m talking about here, but I’m not going to let that stop me…

    I wonder if there is a way to install Ubuntu from a keychain drive, if so you could pack one with your stuff when help do this kind of stuff. Also I read that some libraries have opensource software installers on CD that can be borrowed format he library – if would be cool to make Ubuntu availalbe now that you have it downloaded.

  2. Oh, this brings back memories. I started working in IT in 1995, and my first project was to convert 50 Windows 3.1 PCs to Windows 95. Of course, back then you could use the same product code over and over again. I also had to figure out how to squeeze every last bit out of the hard drives, by constantly removing temp files.

    Anyway, it IS a pain to have old equipment. I was freelancing as a computer tech, and this old lady had some piece of **** that wasn’t worth keeping, but she insisted, so I ended up having her buy all sorts of hardware to upgrade the PC, and in the end she finally bought a new one. I hated charging her, which is one of the reasons I got out of being a freelancer.

    You are a saint for doing this! I look forward to this when I become a librarian (SJSU class of ’08, hopefully).

  3. A friend at a smaller (not tiny) public library was telling me the other day that they are seriously considering not accepting book donations other than for their yearly book sale.

    They found that “free” was costing a lot in staff time. Someone had to do a quick visual check of the material (moldy crap/smells like ashtray vs acceptable). They then would take the acceptable material and check to see if it was in the catalogue, etc. If it was in the catalogue then it was just an added item (still requires processing etc), but if it wasn’t in the catalogue someone then has to decide if it is needed. My friend spent an entire Saturday going through about 300 computer books deciding what to keep or not.

  4. This is off the topic, but I’m curious how the teeny libraries you know of have decided to catalog its collection, if at all. With the cheap and free options for ILSs expanding, and then options like LibraryThing or Delicious Library out there, are there still situations where a library can’t afford to automate? I guess if they can’t get a single reliable computer…That’s a good point about the time it takes to solicit the free stuff out there (or write a grant, etc.). What do they do instead? Tell me no one has to type cards…

  5. I don’t see it as a comment, but I’d vote for doing an Edubuntu install (http://www.edubuntu.org/) as either a standalone or as a diskless lab booting off a server. Easy install, well documented, very robust with Firefox, Open Office and some 20 packages for kids and teens.
    I’ve modeled this with an old Gates computer with two NICs as the server and old Dell Celeron 550 (OPACS) as the clients.

    Xenia Ohio

  6. Out of the four libraries I work with most often, only one is automated and they have a classic OPAC via Follett that works in the library but is not online. We are getting it online this week sometime. The rest type cards, or get them from the people they buy the books from.

    It’s not so much that they can’t afford to automate, but that they don’t have the time+money combination. Any sort of automation requires intensive person-hours of work and there’s very little incentive to do it. There is a statewide ILL system that works for ILL stuff and other than that… hard to say. I’m trying to encourage them to think about Library Thing, but most of these libraries really need a supported solution — none of the lirbarians are tech savvy enough to really run an OPAC with all the other things they have to do in their 16 hour weeks — which isn’t going to happen with an open source option that is within their budget. So, we wait…

  7. If there are lots of other tiny libraries in that situation with automation, it strikes me that there’s a business opportunity here. For someone to start up a fully hosted solution running Koha or Evergreen (open source ILS), if it can be done at a tiny affordable price. There would have to be realistic expectations as to support provided for price paid. Seems like an interesting idea to me.

    [PS: Your comment system—if you forget to type in the magic word, or if it decides you are spam for some other reason, you have to press the back button, and in Firefox my comment is gone, it’s lost, I need to type it in again. This has happened twice now! Got to remember to copy the text to clipboard before I hit submit. ]

  8. Hi! Somewhat off topic, but could you please give specifics about how/what/why you are upgrading and tweaking your personal X31? Funnily enough (and sad too) that is the laptop that I use everyday. I plan on upgrading to a newer laptop in August before the next semester starts, but I’d love to take the time over the summer to play around with the Thinkpad. Can you give any suggestions?

    Open source software is such a hot topic in academia and I’d love to have some practical experience in doing something technical like this before I graduate (UT-K, May 2008 hopefully.)

  9. A hosted solution isn’t necessarily the big problem, but finding someone to enter all the contents of the library. Even a small library contains a lot of information… The two-county system I used to work for is slowly getting automated, and that’s what is taking the libraries so long. The tech setup is there. The people with the time (and attention) to enter the data in any sort of speedy manner are not.

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