Ten Uses for a Laptop Lab in Public Libraries

 I know that wireless has pretty much been adopted in libraries.   There are best practices established for their use and a wide range of journal articles on its implementation and so on.   What I’m less sure about is the adoption of laptop labs.    To a degree, laptop labs are an old thing, and — perhaps — libraries are already on this trick.   But if this is the case, I’m curious as to why my recent article in Partnership is the first thing that shows up when I type “laptop labs public libraries” in Google.   Maybe libraries are calling them something else?

Anyway, wireless technology certainly takes the idea of a laptop lab to another level.   Unlike your average computer lab, you can bring the technology out to almost anywhere — in your program room, out in the study tables, or even outside if the weather is nice, your batteries are strong and the signal is good.

At MPOW we have 3 laptop labs in the system and we want more.    We’ve tried a number of things with them — it’s quite funny actually.   I don’t think any two branches use them for quite the same purpose.   Perhaps the coolest thing about these labs is that they are flexible in use too.

How much does it cost?     Of course, it depends on the size of your system and how large the labs are going to be.   Of course, you can get good deals on technology if you buy in bulk.   But I’d say a total cost of $20,000 CDN for a set of ten laptops with lots of bells and whistles, wordprocessing, photo & video editing software, locks, storage cabinet and wireless router is a fair budget.   Cut one laptop out and maybe you can get some great video & sound equipment too.

  • Lend it out to community groups

Make sure you have a policy if a cord or pieces go missing, but community groups will love the ability to offer training using  your laptop lab.   Whether you insist on in-house use or let the lab leave your building, that’s up to the library’s willingness to accept risk, but it’s a great use and those community leaders will thank your city councilors for it.

  • Engage Teens with Technology

Is this a familiar scenario?  —  You have a computer lab where a group of teens are playing runescape together and getting quite excited about leveling up and pwning each other.   Next to them is the poor guy/woman who has a job application due at 4pm and he/she’s trying to concentrate on how he/she will present himself in the resume.   Old model = major fight, with no one happy.    Laptop lab model = engage the teens in the program room after school with the laptop lab, where they can laugh, learn, play and collaborate all they want without disturbing Mr./Ms. Resume.    One time, I have been told, staff even brought a lava lamp in to help the atmosphere a bit.   Laptops facilitate creativity even too!

  • Train Older Adults Basic Computer Skills

I think every system has one of these libraries:  built in the days before computers, stuffed full of books on old shelves, and no room whatsoever for a computer lab.   People wanting computers falling over each other to get them, and if you want to host a computer class, well the only time to do it is on a day when you are closed.    Very limiting for sure.

Well, laptop labs can help bring more flexibility to such a program schedule, so older adults can experience the joys of accessing their family through email for the first time.    Or start a blog.   Or learn if a new computer is really worth their money or time.    We’ve also even experimented with letting people “drop in” for a refresher on the previous course materials.   That’s more possible with laptops than it is with regular computers.

  • Help develop basic literacy and English language skills

It’s expensive, but you should at try Kurzweil at least once for some ubercool experiences.   Basically, you scan print and it reads it back to you.    Just like that, push a button and away it goes!

There are other products you could add to the mix — things like online picture dictionaries and basic math and english.   Such a lab could be a great support for any ESL/Literacy curriculum.

  • Facilitate Exam Proctoring

Exams are happening online.   Wouldn’t a public library be a great place for folks to host an exam?   Sounds like a great partnership opportunity to me — perhaps even with an out-of-town school.

  • Support Income Tax Programs

In Canada, our revenue service provides a program where volunteers are trained to help low-income earners fill out their tax forms.    If they have a lab, they have the ability to file via internet.   Woot!

  • Bring an “open space/unconference” session to the World

There is a dream in my head that public libraries will some day offer annual/bi-annual/quarterly opportunities for their communities to raise their own agenda items on a city’s well-being and address take actions toward achieving those goals.   The “Open Space” process is one great way to do this.   Wouldn’t it be great if there was a scheduled opportunity to do such things?

. . . and wouldn’t it be made all the better if citizens could blog the experience to the rest of the world using those laptops?

  • Show schoolkids that libraries are fun

The Spring Garden Road Library did a little animation program that looked like load of fun to me!   There are a ton of opportunities to bring kids into the library for a fun and educational time.

  • Take the Library to the Road

Kelli Wooshue and I did a conference presentation at the Nova Scotia Library Association (NSLA), talking about Web 2.0.   Basically, we got people to try a few Web 2.0 technologies and asked them to suggest what made them different from the 1.0 stuff.   We used a laptop lab to facilitate this.   What fun.   And there are possibilities for the future of this too!

  • Showcase the library at Trade Shows

A popular thing that we always do on those trade shows if offer people access to laptops to check their email, access the internet, or place a hold on a book.    It always makes us very popular.

That’s that.  Is anyone else out there using laptop labs to engage their customers?   Let me know!  I’d love to hear any story you have to offer.

6 thoughts on “Ten Uses for a Laptop Lab in Public Libraries

  1. My previous place of work in Texas had two laptop labs – one that stayed in the building and one the we took on the road. The traveling lab was for school conferences and trade shows. The one in the building was built into custom tables with locking tops. When the lab wasn’t in use, the tables could be used like a regular table – but when people booked the lab we would unlock them and the laptops could be used.

    Our building lab was used for adult education (mostly computer training), school projects for kids doing group work so that they wouldn’t disturb other patrons, and tax preparation. Like you, we had volunteers who would help prepare taxes for free, but the IRS also came and did dispute resolution and more complex returns that the volunteers couldn’t handle. The IRS loved the outreach capabilities we had (especially the printers that could do colour and legal sized paper) and the patrons loved being able to talk to a person about their tax problems.


  2. Great idea. I have been trying to teach my granny to do her shopping online and use skype to speak to her friends and I think she would benefit a lot from a crash laptop course.


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