Circulating Laptop Computers at West Virginia University

Article excerpt

Background

The Evansdale Library, a branch library at West Virginia University, began circulating laptop computers in August 1997 as part of a pilot project to allow students more convenient computer access. Staff from another university department, the Office of Academic Computing, used special funding to purchase five laptop computers for the library. They chose Compaq Presario 1060 models, which appeared to be durable, had few external parts that users could remove, and requited no carrying cases. As access services librarian at Evansdale Library, I recommended policies and procedures for circulating the laptops, after getting background information from the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt already had a successful program circulating fifteen wireless computers. Data concerning their wireless computer project was posted on Pitt's web page, providing valuable information for the Evansdale Library. The contact person at Pitt also offered tips such as having laptop users complete registration and fiscal responsibility forms, and she advised frequently using a virus scanner on the computers.

Procedures

Circulation staff issued each laptop user a one-page policies and procedures handout, plus a one-page user survey, a combined user registration Fiscal responsibility form, and a one-page handout on how to use the laptops and print to the laser printer located behind the circulation desk. Staff held student ID cards that were clipped to a log sheet when laptops were checked out. Laptops were treated as reserve items, and could be checked out for in-building use only for two hours, renewable for another two hours. The course reserves assistant created an online record in Notis for each laptop and each AC adapter. When a computer was returned to the circulation desk, staff did a quick visual scan of the laptop for damage, then checked in the equipment and returned the user's ID card. AC adapters were circulated due to the fact that the laptops' batteries did not perform as well as expected, lasting less than one hour. By using the adapters, students could continue working on the computers for the full two-hour circulation period. The library's main floor was wired and an access box was installed to provide the means for laptop users to check their email accounts, the Internet, and the library's online catalog. The access box operated on radio frequency. Later, the other two floors of the library were wired so laptops could be used in most areas of the building. As well as allowing online access, laptops contained the following applications: Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point, and Corel WordPerfect. Academic Computing configured the laptops with the applications available in the campus computing labs. A circulation staff member, the computer support assistant, was assigned to oversee the new service. Using a compact disk and a floppy, she regularly "ghosted" the computers to remove viruses and data that had been saved to the hard drive, then reinstalled the software, which took about ten minutes per machine. Viruses were not a major problem, but software became corrupted as users saved their work to the hard drive. In addition, the computer support assistant made sure the laptops were properly stored, maintained user registration records and usage statistics, and compiled periodic reports based on results from the user surveys. She also contacted Academic Computing when a laptop needed to be sent offsite for repairs.

Results

The library received the portable computers in August 1997 and they quickly became popular with students. For the month of October 1997, laptops circulated 205 times. Usage was up to 273 in February 1998, and our peak month so far has been April 1998 with 331 students using the laptops. According to surveys, students preferred using Microsoft Word, followed by accessing e-mail and Netscape. …