Using $17,500 in funding raised by winning the Mozilla Ignite app innovation challenge, the Kansas City Public Library, MO (KCPL) developed its new Software Lending Library, a remote desktop system that will enable patrons to “check out” and use software applications such as Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Excel on their home computers or laptops. KCPL Digital Branch Manager David LaCrone and his team proved the concept will work this spring; they plan to launch a pilot test within the next few weeks.
“This is an extension of what libraries do,” said LaCrone. “It’s a different spin. We lend materials and we provide access to technology.”
The system is made possible by the gigabit-speed fiber network that Google is currently rolling out throughout Kansas City. Files produced in Photoshop or other Adobe Creative Suite (CS) programs, such as Illustrator or Flash, can grow to dozens of megabytes, and manipulating these large files using a remote desktop solution will require a very high-bandwidth connection for both the library and the home user. However, since the programs will be hosted by the library’s hardware, LaCrone expects that remote users will have a fast, responsive experience, regardless of their home setup.
“The software lives on the remote machine, and that [KCPL-operated] machine can be high-performance, high-powered,” LaCrone explained. “So it almost doesn’t matter what their local processing power is. They can have an old machine [at home] and actually be utilizing the software on a high-powered machine. The [gigabit] connection is what makes that possible.”
To comply with software licensing terms, LaCrone’s team worked with a contract programmer to develop a scheduling mechanism, which ensures that only one patron is accessing a given license at a time. To use the software lending library remotely, patrons will simply visit the library’s website and use the scheduling tool to reserve a block of time with the software. Later, the system will email the patron a direct link, which will initiate the remote desktop session.
“We see this as exactly the same as using a computer with software installed at one of our locations,” he told LJ. “Our model is going to be one license per use at a time. So it’s no different than someone sitting down, using Microsoft Word. They log off the machine, and someone else sits down at that same computer and uses the same license.”
KCPL is in the process of applying for funding to purchase a new pool of licenses for the Software Lending Library—which may cost about $100,000 annually—so the new system will not interfere with on-site software use at KCPL branches. Additional discussion with software vendors may be needed to clarify terms for off-site access, LaCrone added, but he is not anticipating problems.
“It’s something that they may actually feel positively towards, simply because we’re getting their software out there to hundreds of potential new users,” he said. “It’s a conversation I’m eager to have.”
LaCrone also said that the Software Lending Library will help bridge the digital divide because, in addition to being accessible by those with home computers and Internet access, it will enable the library to offer access to these programs at branches and computer centers that don’t already have a dedicated station set up to run a given program, such as Adobe CS or Microsoft Office.
“We can provide access in our libraries and community centers and other anchor institutions, and get people free access, so that we can focus on the real work, which is actually training people and helping them to understand how important it is to have a high-speed connection and be familiar with software,” LaCrone said. “The digital divide is very much a part of this project, even though there’s another part of it that’s just, say, saving freelance graphic designers some money.”
The rollout of Google Fiber is ongoing—even KCPL is not yet connected, despite initial projections of a 2012 ETA—but LaCrone expects access to reach critical mass in Kansas City this fall. For now, his team has been working out the logistics of the system, which is currently hosted by a local data center. He plans to have a minimally viable pilot running by the end of September for internal use and testing, and hopes to have a system ready for the public by early 2014.
“I think there will be a lot of testing that has to go into it,” he said. “Whatever is up initially [during the pilot stage] will be very bare bones, and may be a bit tricky from a user experience perspective, so I think there are going to be a lot of details that we want to tweak.”
Staff involved with the project have included LaCrone, KCPL user specialist John Keogh, and web developer Jacob Brown, as well as Aaron Deacon from KC Digital Drive and Ray Perkins of Goodshot films, a local production company. KCPL’s systems administrators will also become involved with the project if KCPL decides to host the service in-house.