June 18, 2018

Cutting the Cord | Outreach

The Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, serves a community of more than 40,000. Its circulation numbers are in the top ten for the state. It’s a busy place in which people come to borrow materials, attend programs, and use public computers. Often, all of the computers are in use, and by the summer of 2012, all were just about ready to be retired: nine PCs with 45-minute time limits and two express stations each with a 20-minute time limit, plus a dozen netbooks that patrons could check out at the circulation desk and use within the library for two hours.

For more on using vending machines for library outreach, see “Remotely Convenient.”

Rather than keep to status quo, technology librarian Catherine Kiah, working with intern Brad McKenna, envisioned an expanded wireless service model made possible by three key ingredients, two of which were a risk-tolerant staff and a wireless network upgrade. This new model would bring about positive change in a few areas: it would relieve staff from dealing with the netbooks, free up space on the first floor of the library, give computer users the freedom to take advantage of the generous 70-plus seating capacity in the stacks on the second and third floors, and familiarize the community with new devices and encourage self-reliance. The third ingredient that made this new service model possible was a relatively new technology for public libraries, a laptop vending machine.

Welcome, Vendy

The laptop vending machine and its 12-locker unit, promptly nicknamed “Vendy,” arrived from D-Tech International in October 2012; at that time, it was stocked with the older netbooks that were previously managed by desk staff. D-Tech was committed to modifying the machine’s software as necessary to integrate with the integrated library system (ILS). All reference staff received training before patrons could use the machine, which is touch screen–operated and requires a physical library card to work. Patrons scan their card’s barcode to unlock a locker and check out a laptop, then scan the card again to open the same locker to return it.

Some early adopters were excited about the novelty and self-service aspect of the vending machine; others were reluctant to use the netbooks and continued to work at the PC stations, even though the time was more limited. In the peak afternoon hours of PC use, staff would encourage people to try a netbook from the vending machine. Some patrons did; others preferred to wait.

All of the netbooks could print wirelessly to the printer on the first floor, near the reference desk. Patrons who preferred a mouse to a trackpad could check one out from the circulation desk.

Cutting the Cord

In late summer and early fall 2013, library staff began to spread the word that the 45-minute PC stations would be removed after 24 self-service laptops were in place. Assistant director Andrea Nicolay and the adult services staff developed a PR campaign framing the technology changes in a positive way. The visual was simple: an open pair of scissors along with the phrase “We’re Cutting the Cord.” The staff made and wore buttons with the logo, posted signs at each PC station, and wrote articles for the local paper and the library blog.

Another component of change management was educating users about the low-cost device options that are available to consumers, while supporting a Bring Your Own Device environment with updated and expanded Wi-Fi service. Earlier in the year, a library intern had researched local technology resources, including online and nearby in-person classes, and compiled his findings into a helpful guide, “Cross the Digital Divide,” which was highlighted on the blog.

The new laptops arrived equipped with Windows 8, and the old netbooks were retired. Adult services staff offered classes throughout the fall to aid patrons in adjusting to the new system. Library workers familiarized themselves with the new OS in a meeting and on their own, to be able to teach classes and provide one-on-one assistance. A handout of shortcuts and commands was also useful.

The remaining PC stations were removed after the second locker unit was installed, after a few days of testing. They had been in carrels, which were paired up to face each other; the carrels were turned around so it would be immediately apparent that the PCs were no longer there, and a week later they were removed and replaced with large tables that almost doubled the seating capacity.

Express PC service expanded to accommodate short-term usage and customers without library accounts. Five 30-minute express stations remained: three sit-down and two standing stations.


Computer users fell into three categories: eager, agreeable, and reluctant. Most eager patrons had already discovered the laptop vending machine. They were “early adopters,” comfortable with technology changes, especially with staff on hand to answer questions. Agreeable patrons hadn’t used the laptops before but were aware of the “Cutting the Cord” campaign and were open to trying them out, especially with personal attention from staff. The reluctant patrons had a variety of reactions. Many stuck to the express computers despite the 30-minute daily limit, and some left without using a computer at all. However, for the most part, people weathered the change well, and some who had been hesitant when they first heard about the laptops adjusted quickly once they started using them. One computer user said, “I don’t like laptops, [but] I’ll get used to it…. I’m not a tech-savvy person, but I’m more [tech-savvy] than I used to be…. I’m learning all the little things I have to know.” She especially liked the longer, uninterrupted time on the laptop: “We are so lucky to have this library…I’m learning so much.” She added, “I panic, and then I get used to it.” It’s gratifying for library staff to see those who were initially resistant to using laptops come into the library, check them out, and use them with ease.

The Takeaway

The project was successful because the following factors were in play: support from municipal and private funding agents for technology planning that includes beta projects, the ability to offer high-quality products, and staff and library user buy-in. Underpinning this project is the concept that public libraries are leaders in helping digital newcomers cross the divide and giving digital natives more reasons to use the library. With the support and encouragement of librarians, all users can make the transition to current technology, face change with confidence, and close that digital gap.

Andrea Nicolay is the Assistant Director, Robbins Library, Arlington, MA. Jenny Arch is an Adult Services Librarian at Robbins

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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