Thursday, September 13, 2007

Computers, Money, and Angst

Right after reading Geeky Artist's post on the interesting way Yahoo News (? not sure about that) chose to headline the article about internet demand and libraries, I came across the same article headlined a different way:

Despite demand, libraries won't add PCs
Internet demand outpacing libraries' capacity, study finds

Makes quite a difference, no?

Anyway, I read the article which I think paints a pretty accurate picture of what's going on in many public libraries right now. However, I was struck by this nugget:

"The St. Mary's system is likely to leave one full-time position unfilled to free up $40,000 to buy 20 computers, Reif said. That means a 50 percent cut in staff available for outreach programs serving youths."

Aside from the computers vs. "serving youths," (um, could we possibly at least partially accomplish both objectives?) tone, I was prompted to do the math - $2,000 per computer. Now, I have no idea if that figure includes the cost of all the software loaded, additional wiring, additional bandwidth, and what-have-you, but, let's just for sake of argument, say that that is the cost of the box, monitor, keyboard, and mouse (I am assuming printing is networked), and software. Two grand. Per computer.

Sure, people spend that on computers all the time. Gamers. Programmers. People who think they really need all that "extra" crap on big-ticket boxes. Fine. But, apparently, that library can't afford that - so, let's troubleshoot.

I don't care what box you get - a computer has an average useful life of 3-5 years - RAM, processing speed, and storage be damned. Three-hundred dollar computer? 3-5 years. Mucho expensive computer? 3-5 years. Every computer I have ever owned has bought the farm at 4 years.

So, how about a CHEAP box? And by cheap, I mean I bought my Dell from the scratch and dent pile for 248 bucks. Yes. 248. With a keyboard and mouse. Granted, that was a steal, but you get my point. It has more than enough RAM and storage for a public access machine. The sale monitor (which I love), brought the total to under $400.

Software prices got you down? Think VISTA is the work of the devil? Well how about that pesky Open Source you've heard so much about? Ubuntu - FREE! Freespire - FREE! RedHat Fedora - FREE! Open Office - FREE! Firefox (Slimbrowser, Opera, others, I'm sure) - FREE! So far, this computer has all the functionality of the ones we use at my library - for much less money.

What about security? Check out AVG and AVAST's non-profit prices. Centurion Guard too much? How about Fortress? Linux system? Check this list. And again, maybe Centurion Guard is a must for your library - and that's OK - but check your options. (And here's where librarians with some of those silly 2.0 skills would come in handy.)

Now, those 20 machines - are they in addition to, or replacements for, the old computers? If they are additions, that's great, but do you really need 20? Would 10 or 15 still make a difference and save you money? And don't forget to recycle! Who says that EVERY computer in the joint needs to be completely pimped out? Would a few of those older boxes make good word processing machines without internet connectivity? What about a couple of computers just for kids games? Or express internet-only kiosks? Need a "new" monitior? Does it have to be a flat panel (for the sticky fingers of the little ones on that kids' games computer you just set up)? Check Freecycle - people giving that stuff away!

Naturally, every library has different needs, and I'm sure there are expenses that I haven't taken into proper consideration. But you see what I'm getting at here. If you are a poor person, a poor library, or a poor non-profit, you've got to be a little creative.

Tell you what - hire me for 30 grand, and I'll do your YA outreach for you AND get your 20 new machines up and running for less than that other 10 thou. Word.


Karin Dalziel said...

Oh, but you're worth way more than 30 grand. :)

Jeff Scott said...

That's is really stupid. I can always write a grant for new computers, I can't write a grant for a person.

K.G. Schneider said...

A dissenting voice here.

First, you can't hire anyone for $40k anyway. At the loaded rate (factoring in benefits and so forth), that person would be at least $60k.

Second, once you factor in the TCO for a warrantied, solid machine with enough RAM and CPU to last for three to five years -- additional software, anti-virus, etc. -- and don't forget additional furniture that may be needed; network drops; perhaps another printer if you add x number of machines, etc. -- then yes, it will get close to $2000 per machine. As a rule of thumb, $2000 isn't far off, and it's better to highball such estimates.

That's without building in the fact that once you get beyond a handful of machines, the human factor to maintain a fleet of PCs increases.

While you can always write a grant for equipment, you can't rely on getting equipment that way. That gets into the whole grant-funding cycle where you aren't planning, you're wishing on a star. If you're going to say "we provide x level of service," then you need multi-year technology budgeting to back that up and you need equipment that is relatively tough, is designed for heavy use, and has a service plan you can rely on.

I've worked in libraries that always skimped at the hardware level, and it's like libraries without books: at that point, the staffing is irrelevant.

Jessica said...


There are all kinds of expenses associated with computer costs that I didn't factor in, mostly because I know that people, and organizations, often spend two grand on hardware alone. But you're right - added hardware does mean extra printers, furniture, and tech personnel (and, unfortunately, that added personnel is the expense that often falls by the wayside - at least in my experience).

And, I also didn't figure in the consortium factor; I recently discovered that my library is getting some new equipment through a state-wide grant that is basically controlled through the consortium, resulting in computers (and software) that we basically have no say in. The state tech department is choosing the hardware and software, period paragraph. And this may be the best idea for this area, as many of the libraries are without adequate librarian/tech staff....

I guess I was just trying to point out that there is lower-cost but still effective hardware available, and that we also have low-cost and free alternatives for software -- and that the more we at least know about these options, the better off we will be. I completely understand that not all of these options will be right for any given library or its patrons, but I think too many libraries are doing themselves a disservice by simply following the status quo.