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Leaner Library Loaner Laptops: Tips from the Pro

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After the Zion-Benton Illinois Library had some of their expensive laptops stolen and broken, they didn't give up on loaning out laptops to patrons. Instead, they decided to try using sturdier, but less expensive refurbished laptops. Here's how they did it.

TechSoup for Libraries’ Ariel Gilbert-Knight got a chance to meet Tara Caldara at the PLA conference in Indianapolis last month. Tara is Assistant Director of the Zion-Benton Library in northeastern Illinois above Chicago, and she had some great tips to share about checking out laptops to patrons.

The Zion Benton Library is a large single location library. It serves a city of 42,000 people and has 14,000 patrons per month, often 700 per day.

Zion-Benton has 30 public access desktop PCs that people can use for one hour twice a day, but people need more computer time for things like job searching – hence the loaner laptops. Tara also said that patrons often prefer the loaner laptops because they can find more comfortable places in the library to work.

Patrons can check the laptops out for an unlimited amount of time for use in the library while the library is open. Most days all the loaner laptops get checked out.

What's Included with the Loaner Laptops

The loaner laptops have Microsoft Office and of course WiFi. The library has all their PCs outfitted with Faronics Deep Freeze so they return to their original ‘clean install’ condition upon start up, regardless of what patrons do to them.

Patrons can save their documents to flash drives, which the library sells at cost ($6). Each service desk also has an emergency flash drive for times when patrons don’t have one and can’t afford one. 

Giving Refurbished Laptops a Try

The Zion-Benton Library got a grant in 2011 to buy a dozen HP laptops to loan out to patrons for use inside the library. After a couple of years, a number of the new laptops were stolen and they were getting dropped and broken as well.

One clever solution that Tara hit upon was to try out some low-cost refurbished laptops from TechSoup’s Refurbished Computer Initiative (RCI) for their laptop loaner program. In October 2013, Tara requested four of TechSoup's RCI high tier duo core Dell laptops to replace the stolen and broken HPs.

Tara chose the metal case RCI Dell laptops and finds that they’re better than the HPs her library was previously using – sturdier and less theft-prone. Plus, as she says:

"They’re so much less expensive, it won’t break my heart quite so much if they get stolen.”

She wants commercial grade IT equipment and hopes that all of her computers can last five years under heavy use. She said that she will also look to the RCI program when she needs to replace desktops.

Tricks of the Trade To Keep Loaner Laptops Alive and Well

Here are some of the tricks of the trade that Zion-Benton Library has developed to keep their loaner laptops alive and well:

  • Here’s my favorite. They ugly up the loaner laptops with rainbow colored duct tape – a clever anti-theft trick.
  • When checking laptops in and out, the catalog record reminds staff to look for all the pieces.
  • They have their security monitors set up to alert check-out staff if laptops are not checked back in 15 minutes before closing.
  • To check out a laptop, patrons initially need to show picture ID, which the library photocopies. This cuts down on theft.
  • They don’t use Internet filters. Instead they post their Internet use policy where patrons can easily see them – basically no obscenity and no spamming. Patrons are also made aware of the rules when they initially check out a laptop. Find an online version of their rules here.
  • Laptop keyboards are too small for some patrons, so they also offer full-sized keyboards and mice if people want them. They've found that people don’t tend to steal the keyboards and mice.
  • For some reason, they found that laptop cases were very prone to being stolen or destroyed, so the library now just checks out laptops and power cords – no cases.
  • Choose sturdy machines, preferably business class laptops with ruggedized metal cases. In other words, use equipment that will survive getting dropped a few times.

More About Tara

As the Zion-Benton Assistant Director, Tara manages IT security and maintenance, among many other things. She also trains staff in basic troubleshooting and does some IT fixes herself. She loves web and graphic design, and she also does the library newsletter. In her leisure time she does social media for her Kiwanis club and charity running events.

Images: courtesy of Zion-Benton Library

Do you have some additional tips to keep loaner laptops alive and well? Please let us know in the comments!

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