Gas station without pumps

2015 October 31

Dealing with for-profit competition

In The New Yorker gets one right, “Dean Dad” praises a short article in The New Yorker about for-profit colleges;

A tip o’the cap to James Suroweicki, at The New Yorker, for encapsulating the issues around for-profit colleges clearly and well in a single page.  The piece is well worth the couple of minutes it takes, not least because Suroweicki neatly dispatches a couple of widely held, but false, assumptions.

The way to get the best outcome all around isn’t to ban them or to try to pass lawyer-proof regulations.  It’s to outcompete them  Flood the zone with well-funded public colleges with the staffing, the facilities, and yes, the marketing, to compete.  Force the for-profits to compete on quality.  Frankly, if they can prove they do a better job with students, I have no theological objection to them.  But the experience of the last ten years suggests that if they can only compete on quality, they’ll shrink to a much less threatening size, and students will be better off.  
For-profits met a need.  The way to beat them is to meet that need better.  Austerity in the public sector cedes the field to people with other agendas.  Beef up the publics, and the need that fed the for-profits in the first place will fade away.  They can’t lawyer their way out of that.

Suroweicki’s articleThe Rise and Fall of For-Profit Colleges has the same message, plus a bit more.  The article ends with

But if we really want more people to go to college we should put more money into community colleges and public universities, which have been starved of funding in recent years. We should also rethink our assumption that college is always the right answer, regardless of cost. Politicians love to invoke education as the solution to our economic ills. But they’re often papering over the fact that our economy just isn’t creating enough good jobs for ordinary Americans. The notion that college will transform your job prospects is, in many cases, an illusion, and for a while for-profit schools turned it into a very lucrative one.

The business model for the for-profit colleges has been to get students to take out as much debt as they can, give all the money to the college (who then transfer it to a handful of executives and investors), and deliver little or nothing useful in return, leaving the students with debts that they can’t discharge.  This was obviously a socially undesirable outcome, but legislators have been doing all they can to get rid of funding for public colleges and force them to follow the same model.  I really don’t understand politicians—do they really want the sort of world that they are building?

2012 February 13

Library computer installed

LibraryWorld, the cloud-based solution we chose for a small school library.

In a previous post, I talked about my wife switching her school library from Follett software on a Windows98 machine to LibraryWorld in the cloud. Over winter break, we transferred the data from her system to LibraryWorld (all except the circulation information, which has to be manually transferred).  She still has to pay the $395/year fee for the library, before she can invite the students, teachers, and parents to use the OPAC (Online Patron Access Catalog).  One thing she was waiting for was a replacement for the Windows98 machine, since it was not capable of running a modern browser, and was so slow that doing anything on it was an exercise in extreme patience.

Today, I installed for her a Mac Mini running the latest version of OS X (Lion).  We chose a Mac mini because she was familiar with and comfortable with the Mac OS X operating system, it should be easy to maintain for the next decade (about when she’ll be able to get a new machine again), and it was cheap.  It also allowed her to continue using her old monitor (a flat screen only a few years old), keyboard, barcode scanner, and mouse.  She did have to get a new printer, since the old one interfaced using the parallel port, and it did not seem worth salvaging.  We had considered getting an iMac, which would have had a nicer screen, but that would have cost about $400 more, and did not seem worth it, especially as we would still have been using the old mouse and keyboard (my wife hates the wireless keyboard and mouse, because their batteries always die at the most inconvenient times—our trackpad at home seems to be permanently dead after only 6 months).  The wireless peripherals are pretty, but far too unreliable for the job.

Amazingly, one can still get converter cables for hooking up old PS/2 keyboards and mice to USB ports.  We got one by Adesso that does both the keyboard and the mouse and had good reviews.  This saved getting a new bar-code reader, since the old reader (and a spare) were designed to connect with the PS/2 keyboard.

We also needed a Thunderbolt-to-VGA converter cable for the monitor.  I had not realized that MacMini’s needed that converter, and had mistakenly first gotten an HDMI to VGA adapter cable, but the Mac Mini does not put out analog values through the HDMI port, so that was useless.  This delayed installation for over a week, as we waited for the new converter, then for a time when both of us were free to work on the installation.

Because the MacMini is so small, we needed to have a security box to keep it from walking away.  The only one we found is the Tryten security mount, which seems to be adequate for the job.  Most of the installation time for the MacMini was screwing the security box to the desk—my little Black and Decker electric screwdriver did not have enough power, and I had to find a manual screwdriver and do it the old-fashioned way.

Setting up the MacMini was pretty effortless, but I had a bit more trouble installing the Brother laser printer, because the Mac needed to install new drivers for the printer (which it did automatically).  The problem was that the printer was installed before the drivers were, so I had to delete the printer and add it again after the drivers were installed. We didn’t set up the printer wireless, but used a USB cable (not included with the printer), both for easier setup and better security.

The total package, with computer, printer, security box, adapters, and cables came to about $750.  Everything seems to work fine, and  the computer takes up a lot less space than the old tower.  We had no trouble logging into LibraryWorld, and the barcode scanner seemed to work fine with their software.  It will be a few days before the new library catalog is revealed to the rest of the school, though, as my wife wants to make sure that she can do all the things she needs to in it and can help out people in using the online patron access catalog.  (She also has to pay the $395 annual fee, or her library will be offline in a couple of days as the free trial period ends.)

About a month ago I sent some inquiries to customer service at Library World, but have not heard back from them, perhaps because we were not (yet) paying customers.  Here is the message:

My wife, who is a school librarian, is in the process of switching over to using LibraryWorld to manage the school’s library.  We had no difficulty uploading MARC records and Patron records (though the formatting requirements for the patron upload were a bit draconian).

In playing around with the OPAC, we came up with a few suggestions:

1) The URL for access to the OPAC is too long, mysterious, and hard to type:
http://opac.libraryworld.com/cgi-bin/opac.pl?command=signin&libraryname=SpringHillSchool&guest=allow

Furthermore, getting there does not allow dropping a bookmark, since redirection has occurred and part of the information hidden in cookies, which aren’t part of the bookmark.  We can work around this problem by creating tiny URLs with an outside service and by leaving links to the library on the school web page, but these are rather clumsy approaches.

LibraryWorld should do what all the blogging sites do and provide subdomains for each library.  That is the URLs should be

OPAC: http://springhillschool.libraryworld.com
librarian access: http://springhillschool.libraryworld.com/admin

You could even make a little extra money the way the blogging sites do, by selling unique domain names for $5/year to remove the .libraryworld.com to get http://springhillschool-library.org

2) There doesn’t seem to be any way to transfer circulation records from the old Follett library software to LibraryWorld (at least we didn’t find any import options).  For her library, the circulation is small enough that she can re-enter everything, but that could be a major barrier to transferring for library systems that have larger, more continuous circulation.

3) The “Simple” OPAC interface should be designed for 2nd graders, but uses such technical words as “Enter term”.  A better interface would be more explanatory and use more familiar words:

Type words to look for
BOX
then click on a picture to look
IN ALL WORDS         IN TITLES       IN AUTHOR NAMES         IN SUBJECTS

Also, putting the parts on separate lines (as I have done above) makes the sequence of actions more obvious to young children.

4) In the advanced search, I was very surprised to get a different number of results for

ALL WORDS    rocks

and

ALL WORDS rocks      or SUBJECT rocks

At first, I thought that the ALL WORDS search didn’t include subjects, but then I realized that the “or” search had duplicate records.  The results of the catalog search should never contain duplicates—it is very confusing to beginning library users and irritating to more advanced users.

I don’t know what database engine you are using, but de-duplication is a standard feature of every query engine I’ve ever seen.

If the LibraryWorld people see this post, I invite them to respond to my suggestions here.

2012 January 3

Library software

My wife is the school librarian for a small private school, and she has been getting very tired of the library software she has there.  It is an old version of Follett’s library software, which only runs under Windows 98.  The annual license fee is huge, and upgrading to newer software from the same company would cost even more.  The library is tiny (3500 books), but she needs only a few of the standard features in library software (circulation, cataloging, inventory), not acquisitions tracking, budgeting, and other fancy features a large library might want.

I offered to help her choose a new system and looked at several, including Follett, Koha, Greenstone, and a few others.  Initially, I was drawn to the open-source solutions (Koha and Greenstone), but her school does not have any IT staff, and installing and maintaining a big package would be too much effort for too little reward.  It would also be difficult to provide on-line access from her library through the school firewall. We decided that a cloud-based solution, with someone else doing all the software maintenance, would be the best solution, if we could find a cheap enough one.

Although there are several companies providing cloud-based service using the open-source packages, they are generally marketing to much larger libraries (colleges, universities, and public libraries), and their fees were too high for a tiny library.

LibraryWorld, the cloud-based solution we chose for a small school library.

We finally settled on a cloud-based system using proprietary software: LibraryWorld.  They offer a flat fee of $395/year (less that the annual license fee for the antique version of the Follett software), and appear to provide all the features she needs, including providing on-line (even phone) access to the catalog for students and parents, e-mail of overdue notices, and adequate cataloging capabilities (though it would be good to have more databases to search for matching records, as the Library of Congress rarely catalogs book club editions, which the school library gets a lot of, and LC is very slow during the day).

One nice feature is that LibraryWorld gives a 30-day free trial, so we could try uploading the MARC records and patron records from her current system and see whether everything works as claimed.  There does not seem to be any way to transfer current circulation records, which would make LibraryWorld almost impossible for a large library to transfer to, but there are usually not more than a few dozen books checked out from this tiny library, so reentering the circulation information from a report would only take a few minutes. LibraryWorld also does not seem to support RFID tags in books, only bar codes, but her library couldn’t afford the $1/book cost of RFID tags anyway.

We did a trial transfer into a temporary account, and there don’t seem to be any problems with either the catalog data or the patron information.  Although the MARC record format is an ancient one, it is very well standardized, and so library catalog records are very easy to port from one system to another.  The OPAC (Online Patron Access Catalog) seems fairly well designed for school use, with different levels of sophistication for the youngest students, the middle schoolers, and the teachers.   We don’t have a cellphone, so have not been able to investigate the mobile access to the catalog.

I think that early next week we’ll probably transfer the library over to LibraryWorld for real.  Once that happens, one of the first things my wife will do is get rid of the antique Windows98 computer and replace it with something smaller, faster, and easier to use—probably a Mac mini.  Then she’ll get more shelving for the library, so she can start cataloging the books she has stored under our dining-room table (she has no storage at the library, and all her shelves there are full).  Those purchases and the LibraryWorld annual fee will probably eat up most of what she made from the book fair this year, but the library will be much better as a result.

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