DIY Library Catalogue Computer

June 17, 2011
 
Or how to create a Library Catalogue Computer for free(ish), with whatever you have in the store cupboard, using Linux and the tame e-resources Librarian (That’s me).
 
The Library where I work has so far been succumbing to my evil machinations, specifically on the theme ‘Put Linux on everything that doesn’t work properly’. I have no desire to constantly fiddle with unreliable IT resources, not when I have far more productive things to do.
 
Our newish Linux Web server and Content Management System has been, if not a roaring success, at least a loud hurrah. And it hasn’t caused me a single significant problem since I hit the ‘online’ switch.  And it’s cheap, which is jolly good news.
 
Now to repeat this with other resources would be a canny trick, especially as using Linux in a Library is a zero sum game. It costs nothing to install Linux on a system, apart from staff time as well as the cost of the computer, and the computer need not be particularly fast. It’s perfect for reusing old machines that have reached a point that Microsoft Windows shuns as ‘Too Old’.
 
The prime example was the computer that accessed our Library catalogue, an old Windows 98 machine with quite the grab bag of issues, the main one being that it was far too slow to actually access the Library Catalogue. Which is the whole point really.
 
The Machine
 
As our Catalogue computer was a geriatric windows machine, in painful need of replacement with something more usable, I pulled a spare machine from public use. Specifically the one (You know which I mean) that everyone avoids using. Flickery screen, funny smelling keyboard, possible haunting? Who knows for what reason it became a digital pariah, but this sort of machine makes an excellent candidate for being ‘banjaxed’ into a Linux box. It is best to avoid a machine that is prone to overheating, or that emits a horrific soul-piercing whine however, as it will be on 24/7.
 
The Operating System
 
I used Ubuntu Linux, as it’s the most mainstream of all the Linux distributions. I specifically used the LTS version (Long Term Support). Ubuntu Linux is quite cutting edge and fancy, receiving automagical daily updates with many great new features and applications, however the Library Catalogue machine didn’t need that, so by sticking with the LTS version of Ubuntu, hopefully any updates that break the system will be avoided.
 
If you haven’t installed Linux, or have heard horror stories of past failures, let me assure you that things have got a lot easier now. As long as the machine you use is reasonably mainstream (Think Dell and HP Computers) everything should ‘Just Work’. Especially with Ubuntu, which makes the installation process terribly easy.
 
You will also have to give your catalogue computer a name. I suggest ‘Catalogue’ as the sensible choice. You can call it Brenda or Balthazar if you want, I’m not stopping you but do make need to make it unique!
 
The Wireless Card
 
Instead of running the system over the work network, I decided to use the free Library Wi-Fi. The Catalogue Machine can be situated anywhere in the Library, and it removes any issues with internal security while also enabling printing over the Wireless to a Printer in another room. Great for pulling Harvard References off the Library Catalogue.
 
I chose a USB wireless card by the brand ‘Edimax’ that I have found to be compatible with Linux in the past. If you have problems with theft, I would suggest you go with an internal wireless card. I would also suggest buying your wireless card from a known shop, rather than on the internet, so if you discover that you are having problems (Wireless Security, or installation issues) you can just return it for another model.
 
The Set-up
 
Once your computer is installed and ready for use, create a new user, called public, or patrons, whatever you fancy. Make the user log in automatically on a reboot.
 
Next set the browser to automatically start up, this means that even if there is power cut or someone unplugs the Catalogue Machine to charge an iPod (An ever-present risk), it will open immediately. On some computers you may have to go into the bios (The screen when you reboot a computer that says ‘Press F2 for Bios’) and also change a setting so the machine turns back on automatically after a power cut.
 
Set the browser to the address of the ‘WebOPAC’ of your Library Catalogue. You probably will have one, and I haven’t seen a Library without web access to the Library catalogue in over 5 years now, but maybe you are one of those hold-outs that haven’t done it yet. Unfortunately you will require a web accessible frontend to your library catalogue for this to work, so perhaps now is the time to consider it!
 
The Browser Setup
 
The Web Browser (Mozilla Firefox) needs to have a few features added. It needs to start up in ‘Kiosk Mode’ (Full screen, buttons disabled and the address bar removed) so users cannot use it to browse to other websites.
 
The Web browser also needs to return to the Homepage when idle, so that it will always show the search page first. It’s a usability issue, and instantly telegraphs to the user ‘This is where you search’
 
The two plug-ins I used were R-Kiosk and Reset-Kiosk, and whatever you do install R-Kiosk last. It will make Firefox work only as a browser for one single website (The Homepage), and it is a serious hassle to disable once you have installed it! Install only when completely happy with the setup!
 
That’s it, machine complete.
 
Some other features I added.
 
I set the catalogue to wirelessly print, in draft and B+W to a wireless printer. This will help the users print out the details of books if they cannot remember them or wish to print out a detailed reference.
 
I created an exciting and dynamic PowerPoint presentation about the Library, exported it as a folder of image files and dropped it into the ‘Images’ directory. You can then run the ‘Image Slideshow’ screensaver, so the catalogue computer can advertise your services when idle.
 
In the future I hope to change the screensaver so it displays the Libraries ‘New Books’ RSS feed, as one of the great benefits of Linux is that it can be customised to within an inch of its life!
 
Also if you wish to share a printer with all your wireless users, you can do that as well. Attach a printer to the back of the Catalogue machine; install it and the share the printer. It should turn up on the wireless network as a printer, which is a neat trick and saves a bit of money on purchasing network printers.
 
I haven’t gone into great depth how to install Linux, or how to use Ubuntu, but if you need help the Internet is but a click away. One thing that is useful is ALT+F4. This closes Firefox so you can tinker with the operating system. Another handy feature is CTRL+ALT+F1 and then the classic CTRL+ALT+DELETE. This quickly reboots the machine. I haven’t had to do it anger, but it is useful to know.
 
May you never purchase another Library Catalogue computer again!
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