Ditch Starbucks and work at the library

Update: An interesting counterpoint here.

James Shelley wrote up his love of the public library:

“I love my local public library. I have full access to all the content here. None of this ‘Limited Preview’ stuff or accessible-for-members-only notices…The highly educated, the people who will eat supper at a soup kitchen, the recent immigrant — and everyone else, all of us — are here. And everyone seems to feel at home.”

I share his enthusiasm and consider the library a fantastic place to get work done. With that in mind, here’s a reprint of an article I wrote a few years ago on another blog: Forget Starbucks and work at the library.

Many web workers and freelancers like to get out of the house once in a while and set up shop at Starbucks, Borders or the local coffee shop. I did this, too, until I realized that there’s a much better – and cheaper – option just down the road. My library. Here’s why I love it so.

No distractions

Starbucks is erupting with distractions. The first is the music. I like to listen to music when I work, but it’s got to be instrumental. If a song has lyrics, I’ll pay attention to them. Don’t get me wrong, the music at these places is great, but not while I’m concentrating. On the other hand, the library is as quiet as…well, a library.

There’s also several conversations within earshot, other people clacking away on their keyboards…one time a woman asked me to troubleshoot her connectivity issues. Sorry, lady, but I’m trying to work here.

Free

The library is free. Places like Starbucks and Borders charge for Wi-Fi access, not to mention the drinks and food. I don’t know about you, but I can’t sit in a coffee shop without ordering something. And then something else. And something else. If you’re doing life-sustaining work as you sit there, you’re eating and drinking some of your own profits.

Room to spread out

The coffee houses in my neighborhood have these tiny, round tables that seem barely larger than my MacBook Pro. Forget trying to add a mouse, a drink and some papers. The library offers huge, flat tables that beg, “Come, dump out all your stuff!”

Phone calls

I know what you’re going to say. “But I can make phone calls in the coffee shop. Not the library.” It’s true that cell phones are not allowed in most libraries. I’ve got to stand in the entrance way to use mine. However, it has been my experience that the coffee shop is so noisy, I end up going outside to take a call. So there’s really no difference.

I know that it’s the hip thing to be seen writing in public, but the library is the best place to do it. Give it a try.

Down to what’s necessary

As my MacBook Pro slowly dies, I’ve called my old G4 iMac back into service. Years ago, that machine was wiped clean and given an install of Mac OS X 10.5 before being boxed in the basement. On Friday I will wrap up one week of using it as my primary work machine. In that time I’ve found that it’s slow, beautiful and perfect. Here’s why.

Setup

After confirming that everything still works, I prepped this machine for duty. Specifically:

  • Update the OS. It’s currently running Mac OS X 10.5.8, and that’s as high as it’s going to go.
  • Install necessary software. Remember, I’m starting from scratch with a retail install of Leopard. I write for a living, so my needs are minimal. After one week, I’ve installed Colloquy, Twitterrific, Growl and Dropbox. That’s it. IRC serves as my virtual “office,” and I use Growl to pop up keyword notifications so I don’t miss important discussions when Colloquy is in the background. Typically I use Tweetie for multiple account support, but on the iMac I only need my personal account so Twitterrific it is. Finally, all the docs I’ll need to work with are either in Dropbox or Google Docs.
  • Get on the network. Simple with my home Wi-Fi.
  • Connect the hardware. My trusty Extended Keyboard II is hooked up via a Griffin iMate, and a USB extension cable connects my Mighty Mouse.

Use

After months of using my MacBook Pro’s 15-inch screen, I had forgotten how lovely the iMac’s 20-inch display is. Unfortunately I’ve lost my external Viewsonic, as this iMac only offers mirroring. I’ve also noticed that the iMac is significantly quieter than the MacBook Pro, whose fans whirred like a hovercraft after a few hours.

I’m using TextEdit as my text editor and Preview as my image editor. Best of all, since I’ve got Dropbox installed I can work on documents with my iPad or the iMac thanks to PlainText (here’s why I love PlainText).

Yes, the UI is a bit slow compared to what I’m used to. But it’s still perfectly acceptable. Sometimes I must give a webpage an extra fraction of a second to scroll, and often Mail takes its time while downloading the bulging AM inbox. But waiting a half of a second isn’t the end of the world.

Looks

This is the most beautiful computer Apple has made. The articulated arm and adjustable, swivel display still strikes me as gorgeous. While seated in front of it the screen seems to hover above my desk. Apple’s contemporary machines are gorgeous but the G4 iMac is a knockout.

Over the past six days, I’ve been able to discover just what I need to complete a day’s work. That turns out to be:

  1. A G4 iMac
  2. An Internet connection
  3. My beloved old keyboard
  4. A mouse
  5. A browser
  6. Colloquy
  7. Twitterrific
  8. Dropbox
  9. TextEdit
  10. A clean, quiet room

And that’s it.