Alachua County Library District Implements Innovative Laptop Checkout Program

How a staff of non-techies used their brainpower to dream up a creative plan that worked
Gainesville, FL
Micheal Fettes

Micheal Fettes, the Automated Services Administrator for Alachua County Library District (ACLD) in Gainesville, Florida, oversees 12 staff members who possess diverse qualifications but lack advanced experience with technology.

“Most of us just have bachelor’s degrees and we’ve learned from our experience,” Fettes offered. Nevertheless, through experimentation and critical thinking, ACLD successfully implemented an innovative laptop checkout program that may prove to be a model for libraries puzzling over how to offer these space-saving and powerful technologies.

The inspiration for the laptop checkout program originated from the library’s director, who had experience with a similar program at his previous job.

I have to say, at first, I was a little hesitant," Fettes admitted, “because we had had some problems with things going missing, you know, some theft of items here before. And we were a little reluctant to put an expensive laptop out there on the floor without too much control on it.”

The fact that ACLD’s 10 library branches already had a strong IT infrastructure in place—wireless access and adequate bandwidth to support additional computers—helped convince Fettes that the laptop checkout program was worth a shot. Once the idea was hatched, Fettes’ staff began brainstorming steps they would take to implement and maintain the program, beginning with the type of laptops to purchase.

Using a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Fettes and his staff eventually settled on 36 mid-range Dell laptops, largely because they could purchase three-year accidental damage coverage, helping to ensure that library patrons would not incur burdensome repair costs should they accidentally damage one of the $1,300 laptops.

“We figured sooner or later, somebody’s going to drop one,” Fettes said, “and we’ll have to send it back in and we didn’t want the patron to be responsible for anything other than maybe shipping [the computer] back and forth.”

Implementing Protective Measures

After securing the three dozen laptops, Fettes' staff turned its attention to implementing policies and equipment that would keep the laptops safe and reduce maintenance hassles. Although ALCD had installed the Fortres risk-protection program Clean Slate on hundreds of desktop machines, Fettes' staff decided that this application was too restrictive for the laptops, partially because Clean Slate does not allow users to update Flash or Java platforms. The staff were resolved to offer patrons wide open access to these powerful laptops, considering in particular the needs of gamers who download plug-ins to play resource-intensive programs.

To protect their investment, Fettes' staff began experimenting methods to restore a laptop to its original settings with partitioning software and the disk-imaging program Norton Ghost, ultimately arriving at a solution that was both fast, easy, and smart.

They played around with it and found that they could actually create a ghost image, put it in a hidden partition, and using a flash drive with run-time version of [Norton] Ghost on it, they could actually redo the C: drive within three to four minutes between each use,” said Fettes.

Fettes added that this restoration system not only helped protect patrons' privacy, but the ease of this solution allowed non-technical staffers the confidence to turn the machines over with little effort.

“All they had to do was basically insert the thumb drive and we set it up to boot off of USB,” Fettes said. “They essentially turned [the laptop] off, put in the thumb drive, turned it on, and [the C: drive] rewrote itself. And then it beeped at them when it was done."

To help ensure that patrons would use the laptops responsibly, Fettes and his staff drafted an agreement that users must sign before they can check out a laptop. The document specifies how long a user can borrow the machine, requires a picture ID in exchange for a laptop, and cautions that users exercise safe habits when divulging potentially sensitive information over the library's Internet connection. After a laptop is returned, a staffer examines it thoroughly to make sure that the laptop has not been damaged and that all components have been returned.

Since Fettes' initially feared that the laptops would be susceptible to theft, ACLD also took steps to discourage patrons from leaving the building with the computers—or parts of them. The library purchased thousands of inexpensive tamper strips to deter users from removing hard drives or batteries. This simple design exposed a compromised laptop by a torn strip—a low-tech and clever solution that most libraries could adopt. The library also took a more high-tech approach, and placed RFID anti-theft tags on the machines. The tags include the library's name and can be set to trigger an alarm if the laptop is taken outside the library.

Through a combination of safeguard policies and staff monitoring usage, Fettes noted that ALCD has been very successful at keeping its laptops safe and running well.

We’ve had over a thousand check-outs in the last two months and we have yet to have a single machine be damaged or go missing,” He added humbly, “patrons proved me wrong and I’m very happy about that.”

Laptop Checkout Program Picks up Speed

Since March 2007, when the Alachua County Library District began keeping records on how many laptops were being checked out, it has seen a substantial increase in the program's popularity. In the month of March, a total of 239 laptops were checked out, in April the number grew to 418, and by the end of May, the number ballooned to 607 checkouts. Fettes also noted that his staff has had a number of users specifically express interest in checking out the laptops, which are more powerful than the branches' older desktop machines.

Reflecting on the program's successful launch, Fettes believes that his staff's willingness to brainstorm ideas played a critical role in solving potential problems.

“That really helped, because we had so many different ideas on how to do things,” Fettes said. “The ways that we came up with [are] pretty flexible and work out very well so far for us