Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Flash drives for all?

Yesterday one of our most unpleasant patrons came in and spent a couple of hours typing furiously without saving any of her work. Her system is to come to the library, work for a long time, and then have a staff person help her email the document to herself. Yesterday evening she flipped out because she was confused about what time the computers shut down and as a result they shut down before she had a chance to email her document and she lost all her work. This is despite the fact that both I and my colleague told her very clearly when her computer session would expire and reminded her repeatedly that you never know for sure what will happen so you should save your work frequently.

My colleague (before she lost her work) talked to her about the advantages of having a flash drive, but she wasn't interested. This happens surprisingly often at my library. Even though data storage is incredibly cheap now and you can buy flash drives almost everywhere, most of our patrons don't have them and aren't interested in getting them. Those patrons frequently lose work, sometimes hours of work, on the public computers. It's hard to push people to strongly to get a flash drive because, firstly, the cost is still non-zero, and secondly, to act on the suggestion immediately, the patron would either have to leave the library or buy one of the massively overpriced drives that our Friends of the Library group sells as a fundraiser. At the same time, lost data causes a huge amount of heartache both to patrons and to staff (because patrons take their frustration out on us), and would be easily avoided if every patron in the library had his or her own flash drive.

What if we actually gave every patron a flash drive? Cursory Google searching suggests that you can buy 128 mb flash drives in bulk for about $2.75/unit (128 mb probably doesn't sound like a lot to readers of this blog, but I'm confident it would be enough for 99.9% of all library users). We issue about 200 new library cards a month at my library branch. If we gave out a drive with each one it would cost us about $550 per month, equivalent to the cost of about 28 hardcover books. Ordering the drives and handing them out would cost barely any staff time, and it would be easy to know who had already been issued a drive and who hadn't. The question is, is this the kind of service that we want the library to provide?

Some pros:
-It makes things easier for library staff
-It allows users to use another library resource (public computers) more efficiently
-People like getting free things

Some cons:
-It costs money that would otherwise go toward expanding the collection or improving other library services
-It is a wealth-transfer program in that it takes tax money from people who buy their own flash drives and gives it (in the form of flash drives) to library users, who tend to be poorer than the average population
-It might not be in line with the library mission of lending rather than giving (arguable)

Anyway, thoughts? Do you think this is something libraries should consider?

(Follow-up post to, um, follow.)


  1. we had a bunch of really cheap flash drives from LexisNexis that we were handing out for a time at our reference desk. We don't have computers where the public can do their own word processing, but we have scanners that can save to a flash drive but can't email. So we were getting requests for flash drives. The problem we ran into, though, was that the really cheap flash drives had a failure rate of about 50%. So people would get crabby, and it would take time to diagnose the problem, and we would sometimes give them a new flash drive that was also defective. Eventually we decided it was more trouble than it was worth. No one suggested looking into giving away better/more expensive flash drives.
    It might be politically awkward for your library to compete with its Friends program. And wouldn't it drive you crazy to hand out flash drives to the same people repeatedly? Because I bet they wouldn't keep track of them. I'm leaning toward not doing it.

    1. Two things:

      1. It's good to know that it would be worth investing in nicer drives if the library did end up trying this!

      2. As for giving ones out to the same people repeatedly, my idea was that they would be issued one when they got their library card and no more after that. Of course, that solves the problem of giving out a zillion drives but it doesn't solve the problem that maybe a large fraction of our patrons would lose the drives almost immediately and thus would not benefit from them. It would give the staff some moral high ground when someone griped at us when she lost her work because we could say "Well, you were given a flash drive, ma'am," but $3/patron is a lot of money just to give an advantage to a librarian in an argument with the public. Giving out only one drive would also, I hope, keep the Friends from being as upset, because they would still be the provider of replacement drives.

  2. What about suggesting that these patrons use google drive or dropbox?

    Could you have a flashdrive loan/checkout program? Would it help even just as something they could only use in the library? They could save files to the flashdrive as they go and then at least if they get logged out the files are still saved to the flashdrive. Then they could log back in and keep working.

    1. I think that Google Drive and Dropbox are a bit too technologically advanced for a lot of our patrons, but I love the idea of a checkout/loan program! It would definitely help those patrons who are on the computers all day and at risk of losing their access at one point or another. And maybe they could have a short loan period for going out of the library--after all, the drives aren't very expensive, so it's not like letting an ereader or laptop out the door to a patron who probably can't afford to replace it if it's lost or stolen. I don't think wiping the flash drives would be too much work--no more than shelving a returned book or DVD. Plus, it's more in line with how the library makes other materials available. I think I might actually pitch this idea (giving you credit of course!).

  3. I'm glad you like my loan idea!

  4. I like Molly's idea too!