This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

August 28, 2002 - New Tools for the Desktop

It's a kind of illness. I know that.

Nonetheless, every 18 months or so, I'm compelled to do an inventory of all the tools on my computer desktop. Here are the things I look at:

First, where do I spend most of my time? That is, what kinds of work do I need to do?

Second, which applications do I use to accomplish that work?

Third, what else is out there that might help me be more productive, to accomplish more work in fewer steps?

Fourth, how can I save both my own and the public's money, or at least, invest it more wisely?

All across the country, libraries are spending millions of dollars annually on staff computer desktops. Most of it goes to the software. That covers a lot of ground: operating systems, commercial applications, and an increasingly steep upgrade cycle.

These upgrades, proprietary by definition, are both expensive and disruptive. That is, they require regular and significant infusions of public dollars, and each upgrade is just different enough from the previous version to require both more staff training, and more upgrades.

Is there a net gain? Sometimes, I wonder. But it's time for the library to replace a lot of our older computers, and it makes sense to ask, "Upgrade to what?"

There is a significant alternative to Windows or the Macintosh OS. It's called Linux. A comprehensive resource is available at www.linux.org, or through the library's many Linux books.

In brief, Linux is a "free" operating system. You can download it at no cost beyond whatever you pay to connect to the Internet; or you can buy remarkably inexpensive CD's, and load it that way. Linux can co-exist with your Windows or Mac systems.

Why Linux? Well, in addition to the fact that it's free (no license fees of any kind, and you can install it on as many machines as you like), Linux runs the world's most popular Internet server, Apache. It also provides a variety of industrial strength email, printer, and other workstation management services. In contrast to Microsoft operating systems, Linux, like Unix, is remarkably stable, remarkably resistant to viruses, and a workhorse.

More recently, Linux also comes with a complement of free, or "Open Source" desktop software. One of them, Open Office, provides a word processor, a spreadsheet, and presentation applications, all compatible with Microsoft Office. Linux also runs applications that let you share data with a PDA, run database applications, browse the Internet, manage email, and much more.

We already use Linux for various behind-the-scene servers. But over the next few weeks, I'm going to try to make the move to the Linux desktop.

Along the way, I'm going to look at other software tools. Thoreau once said, "Men have become the tools of their tools." You've probably seen it another way: when you get a new hammer, suddenly everything looks like a nail.

But everything isn't a nail. And traditional word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and personal information managers, for all the time they save, also impose limits on the way we think.

Is the Linux desktop ready for prime time? If so, it has the potential not only to preserve work created on other platforms, but also to liberate many dollars that might be put to other, better, uses.

More importantly, are there are software applications out there that will make us even more productive than the current crop?

I think the answer to both questions, is "Yes." So it's time to test it out and see if I'm right. Either way, I'll let you know.

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