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