Friday, 15 February 2013

Speed of the computers in the libraries

I picked up a piece of casework recently asking for improvements to the computers in libraries. As more and more stuff moves online the performance of these computers is going to become more and more of an issue. I have posted the response below as I thought it is of general interest.

What has your experience been with the computers in the libraries?

"Good morning.
I have been asked to reply to your enquiry about public access computers in Reading Borough libraries.
I sympathise with Mr X, who is a regular user of our ICT facilities.
We have had our system monitored for speed on several occasions, and had an additional server installed at the end of last year to maintain line speed. The network is not particularly slow, although this does occasionally vary according to the period of the day, as indeed does the speed of the council staff network.
More critically however speed depends what internet site the library customer is using – some sites are slow, but this is of course an issue with the site rather than anything within our control.
The issue of Office Suite products e.g. Word; of file download; and of USB sticks, are all related, and have the same answer.
When the library system was first installed a decision was taken by the then Head of ICT that a thin client installation would be used, operating in a Citrix environment. I believe there were many reasons for this decision. The set up is much easier for the council to maintain. It is more robust. It allows cheap, continuous and reliable access to the internet. Crucially, it protects the council’s network, as there is no possibility in a thin client environment of being able to hack through to potentially sensitive information stored and maintained by other departments e.g. Social Services. It also allows the use of reasonably robust filtering software on all terminals, although misuse causing distress to other library users has still occasionally been an issue despite this.
The thin clients are not pcs, they are essentially dumb terminals with no processing power, which is provided by the servers. They therefore do not have any physical means of allowing uploads or downloads, including USB ports. This is also a means of protecting the network and equipment, as they cannot be used to import any viruses which might affect the system.
Office products including Word are provided for public use on stand alone pcs, which do not have a connection to the internet as they would otherwise incur all the problems identified above. These can be booked, as can the internet machines. As they are not networked there are no speed issues and as they are pcs, USB sticks can be used.
Although I appreciate that some users find it frustrating that they do not have access to the same set up as they would with a home pc, or at an internet cafĂ©, the current system has allowed us to continue to provide free public internet access while protecting the council network. Free internet access for all via public libraries was the aim of the People’s Network, which partly funded our current set up (as it did in most public libraries).
Any other system (for example one which was pc based) would not only require considerable capital input, which I believe is unlikely to be available in the current funding climate, but it would also be prohibitively expensive to maintain. This would also, I would think, make it less likely to remain free for the public to use, and a number of public library authorities are now charging for internet provision.  A pc environment would also of course potentially have all the attendant issues around security which thin clients prevent, and therefore would be unlikely to be acceptable to those with responsibility for the network.
We have a considerable number of users of the internet each day in our libraries, all of whom benefit from the free provision. I do certainly understand the frustrations of those users who have a higher expectation of the ICT set up. Our current remit however is to maintain and enable the provision of free access to information for all residents via the internet – the aim of the People’s Network - rather than the replication of the features of a home pc system. As far as I am aware, there are no plans to change that, for the reasons I have highlighted above.

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