A few years ago, I had a conversation with an IT guy about computers at the library that he worked at; he explained that all the computers were leased for about 400 each for two or three years; it didn't make sense, and I told him so; for less then 400 bucks you could easily buy a desktop that you would never have to give back. He argued that if things went bad on that, it might not be covered in the warranty, and the cost of upkeep were just too high. I found the whole conversation frustrating, because he was getting paid to upkeep the computers and would save the library a lot of money by not having to get a new lease every two years. Times have changed, computers are even cheaper, and he's probably still leasing them for the library.
Today, however, I think a bigger argument is why would a library lease when netbooks are so cheap? (for reviews, see yesterdays blog) The time of the 200 dollar, and maybe 100 dollar, notebook is here, and I think it's time for libraries to reconsider the idea of checking out computers. A few libraries have experimented with the idea, but the cost of mini notebooks are so cheap that it's more of a reality for even the smallest library.
The problem I've seen in many older branch libraries is there's simply no room for computers; bookshelves are often removed to make space; new libraries are obviously built with computers in mind, but what about the little guys?
As you probably know from my blog yesterday, I am a new fan of the MSI Wind. Not only is this a great computer for the average user, it's a great computer for the average library. Instead of finding odd nooks to handle large desktops, why not check out computers? For less then 10,000 dollars, a library could have twenty+ brand new notebooks. The battery life on a computer with a 3 cell battery is about two hours, so a patron can't horde it all day if you don't give them power supply.
Frequently, even in new libraries, computer labs are in the least desired part of the library--stuffy rooms with no natural lighting.
A patron has the freedom to roam the library with laptops, and use the computer wherever they're comfortable. Theft is not a problem if you have a policy that requires valid library card and ID. Obviously the right check out policy is the biggest issue, but it can be done.
I think the time has come for libraries to seriously consider the mobile computer lab.