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Redefining the Public Library Using Open Source Ideas

When I read that the Takoma Park Maryland Library has 28 workstations running Linux, I literally couldn’t believe it. Really? A library offering the public Linux? Whenever I go to a library, all I ever see are Windows machines or maybe a Mac or two. When I mention Linux as an alternative, and I sometimes do, I’m usually met with blank stares and the staff begins to think I’m nuts.

To check into this, I contacted Phil Shapiro, the library’s Public Geek. Yup. That’s right, he told me. They are running Linux. The decision was made by his supervisor, Rebecca Brown, some time ago.

“This town is quite diverse, with 92 nationalities, so we needed to find a good multilingual solution,” Shapiro explained. “Rebecca chose a Canandian Linux solutions provider, Userful, whose commercial product is built on top of Fedora Linux. Userful does multilingual very well.”

Phil Shapiro Open Source Library
Phil Shapiro, Takoma Park Maryland Library’s “Public Geek”
The Takoma Park Library takes advantage of the multiseat feature built into Fedora, which allows multiple monitors, keyboards and mice to be operated from a single desktop box. Shapiro has been so impressed with how well this set-up works that he’s made a YouTube video demonstrating Fedora’s implementation of multiseat running on an “obsolete” laptop with low specs.

Interestingly, the move to Linux was met with little push back from the patrons using the machines.

“The patrons are quite happy using Linux to get their work done,” Shapiro said. “Very few of them have any clue they’re not using Windows. They surf the web using Firefox and Chrome and use LibreOffice to compose and edit their word processing documents. In the nine years I’ve worked at this library, only one or two people have ever told me, ‘Hey, this isn’t Windows.'”

So much for the learning curve we read so much about — not surprising to those of us who use Linux. Nor are we surprised to hear that running Linux instead of Windows makes things easier on the library’s IT crew.

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