Managing library computers for staff and the public can be a daunting task. Keeping track of licenses and equipment and maintaining them can be difficult, especially in a ten-branch system with a couple of hundred machines. But smaller, less expensive computers have been coming on the market lately, and at the Somerset County Library System (SCLS), NJ, we have been using these solutions to assist our staff and patrons with daily functions. Whether it be a Raspberry PI for a digital sign, a Chromebook/Box/Base for the public or staff to use, or a ZBOX for checkout, they all cost less, run faster, and work just as well as their costly counterparts.
A few years ago, when Google, Acer, and Samsung introduced the Chromebook, I was intrigued by the concept of a low-cost, totally cloud-based computer. Like many, I was skeptical but also curious, so I picked one up. I was amazed at the ease of use, quick load time, and long battery life. The next day, I received a call from one of our branches stating that it did not have enough computers for public use. The branch has limited space for workstations, so these inexpensive Chromebook laptops seemed to present the perfect solution. That week, I purchased five Chromebooks [which are now available from a variety of manufacturers, generally priced from $149 to $299] and started to put them to use at that branch. They worked great, but during a testing phase, I learned that I would need a way to manage them if we were to consider offering Chromebooks at multiple branches.
Within a few months, I found the solution: Google Chrome Management (GCM). For a one-time license fee of $30 per device, this web-based management console allows administrators to manage, inventory, and update all of a school or library system’s Chromebooks and enable functions such as printing via a branch’s equipment. The management console also allows rules to be placed on the Chromebooks for added security and privacy, according to the libraries’ regulations. An administrator can change rules and permissions and perform other management functions from anywhere by simply logging into his or her Google Account. It even offers a time management feature similar to the solution we use on our public computers.
After purchasing licenses for the test Chromebook, the management solution worked out so well that I expanded Chromebook use to all of our branches, as public workstations that can be used anywhere in the building.
More recently, several manufacturers have introduced a desktop variant of the Chromebook: the Chromebox, which is designed to connect to existing keyboards, monitors, mice, and other peripherals. During my initial tests of the Chromebooks, I had experimented with various Linux distributions (the Chrome OS can be dual-booted with Linux) with positive results. This presents a great option for some applications, such as our ILS software. So, the Chromebox got me thinking about staff computers. Chromebox units can be managed with the same GCM licenses that SCLS purchased for the Chromebooks and can be set up with different criteria from any public-use Chromebook or Chromebox. We could install apps that would allow staff to manage our Chromebook inventory and printing, as well.
Many of our staff machines are getting old and out-of-date. We’ve been considering cost-effective and efficient options for replacements, including Chromebox and Google Apps for Libraries. With this in mind, we have been testing Chromebox as a staff computer and currently have many staff and public service desks working with Chromeboxes. Most are running the Chrome OS; some are running a Linux distribution (just for access to the ILS).
Recently, LG and Acer debuted all-in-one Chromebase desktops at a fraction of the cost of a “regular” computer. It even comes with a keyboard, a mouse, and a 22″ wide-screen monitor for a full equipment update that costs around $300.
Yet SCLS isn’t limiting testing to devices with the Chrome OS. We’ve also started looking at a ZBOX by Zotac to run on our checkout desks. It comes with Windows, allows us to install our ILS Client easily, and works with our existing equipment. They are simply small, cost-effective Windows computers (around $200 each, including Windows OS). They are also easy to upload Linux to for our current public workstations.
Upgrades to library computer equipment don’t have to be costly. There are many small, low-cost computer alternatives that are reliable and make sense for various library needs.