When Public Libraries Are an On-Ramp to Open Source

Open source linux laptop computer with an illustrated penguin on the keyboard

People go to the public library to expand their horizons. At the public library, they can encounter new ideas, new perspectives, and new possibilities. Sometimes they'll even find new hobbies and new career paths.

The public library can also be the perfect venue for people to have their first taste of open source — software that makes the original source code freely available for redistribution and modification. The public library where I work in Maryland offers 27 public-access Linux computer stations for community residents to use. I also offer to install Linux for free on any Windows XP or Windows Vista computer that people bring me. I do this as a volunteer, but my library supervisor allows me to do this during my workday — as long as it's not interfering with my other job duties.

Installing Linux on Older Computers

In the past year, I've been going one step further. I track down very affordable Windows XP and Vista laptops on eBay. After buying them, I install Linux on them and offer these laptops to community members for the same price I paid for them. I typically pay about $40 to $80 for these laptops. Many of the people I interact with at the public library don't have Internet access at home. These are the exact people that could benefit from having a very affordable Linux laptop. The library where I work is open seven days a week, so a person with a laptop can boost their digital skills in significant ways using the library's free Wi-Fi.

Free Training

I direct community members to free, high-quality, online learning resources such as GCFLearnFree.org, Lynda.com, and Khan Academy videos. Lynda.com tutorial videos are available for free to anyone who holds a library card in the adjacent Prince George's County Memorial Library System.

Community members can also ask me unlimited questions about these Linux laptops. To help people understand the value of my time, I explain that when I teach as an adjunct professor at American University, I'm paid $80 per hour. I'm the same person explaining the same things there as I explain at my public library job, but at my public library job my time is free to knowledge seekers. To make this visually vivid, I explain, "When you're asking me questions, it's as if I have my wallet open and I'm giving you $80 per hour." People feel less shy about asking me questions after they hear that.

The $40 Laptop

Last month, I was able to find a $40 laptop for a community member of retirement age. This laptop cost me $40, including shipping. The hitch? It was missing the keycap on the letter G. So, I explained to the community member, "Take this laptop home with you for two weeks, try it out, and if you like it, you can pay me $40 for it. And here, take this free USB keyboard, too, so that if you want to type fast on that laptop you won't be slowed down by the missing letter G."

Two weeks later the community member came to me with the laptop and said, "I've decided to keep this laptop and I have $40 to give you." I replied, "Great! Please ask me questions about your laptop, so I can help you get the best use of it."

She then stared intently at the laptop and looked over at me and then back at her laptop. After a pause, she said, "This laptop is now mine?" I replied, "Yes, that's your laptop." It was a poignant moment. This community member never thought she'd ever own a laptop in her life — and here she was, walking home from the public library with her own laptop.

How You Can Distribute Open-Source Computers

Other public, school, and college libraries could be doing similar things. Find the people in your community who love to refurbish computers. Every community has such persons. With Linux, you don't need any licensing permission to install the operating system. Just dive right in. You'll find people locally and in other cities (including myself) to support you. I suggest joining the Computer Refurbishers Google Group too. That group is for computer refurbishing on all computer platforms, but there are some outstanding Linux refurbishers on that list. Ask them your most difficult questions. When they're answering your questions, it's as if they were opening their wallet and giving you $80 an hour.

About the Author

Phil Shapiro is a librarian, educator, and technology access activist in the Washington, D.C.,area. He has found inspiration in the learning that goes on at after-school programs, adult literacy organizations, public libraries, and organizations bringing music instruction and the arts to children. He is a true believer in public libraries as the central social, educational, and creative institutions in our communities.

Image: Paul B. Moore / Shutterstock