March 22, 2018

Fewer Dollars, More Sense | Field Reports

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.

SCLS’s Richard Loomis installs a Chromebox in the Bridgewater Library. Photo by Kevin Henegan

SCLS’s Richard Loomis installs a Chromebox in the Bridgewater Library. Photo by Kevin Henegan

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.

Desktop alternative

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.

Richard Loomis is Digital Services Manager, Somerset County Library System, NJ. Send submissions for Field Reports to

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  1. Aaron Sakovich says:

    I’m curious how a public library gets around the onerous Terms of Service put in place by Google. I’ve exhaustively read the ToS for Chrome (which also covers that for Chrome OS) ( which has some zingers like:

    – Google may disable your account and prevent you from accessing your files.
    – Even if Google disables your account, they still retain access of your information unless you sue to have it removed. In Santa Clara County.
    – “You may not copy” nor “assign or grant a sub-license”, making installation on public computers illegal; Chrome is only available as “personal … non-assignable… software”.
    – You *must* allow all updates, even if you know they will break functionality.
    – Google will “pre-screen, review, … modify, [or] remove” any content you view.
    – Ads will be injected into your content and “you agree that Google may place such advertising on the Service.”
    – The included Adobe software license precludes use of any PDF or EPUB reader with other than Adobe’s DRM.
    – Users “may not… create derivative works… based in whole or part” without Google’s or the content provider’s permission. Constitution be damned…

    These are but a few reasons why we don’t allow Chrome on our public computers, and why its use is strongly discouraged on our staff computers. Chrome and Chrome OS may be fewer dollars, but in a privacy-aware institution like a library, they make NO sense. You get what you pay for.

    And sometimes, you wind up paying for what you get.

    • Hi Aaron,
      Thank you for reading the article. You bring up some interesting points that we discussed at great length within our Library System. If you would like to contact me, I could discuss them with you and answer you question about the “onerous Terms of Service” you are talking about in your comment.

  2. Thank you for this article. I am in the process of gathering information toward replacing our aging public desktops, and this sounds like a nice, low cost solution. I was wondering, though, what security measures are in place for the Chromebooks that are available for patrons to use anywhere in the library? Does the SCLS have a security system that sets off an alarm if someone attempts to leave the building with a Chromebook, or some other means of theft detection?

    • We actually check the Chromebooks out to people just like other materials. We have set the ILS to check out for 4 hrs at a time. It works out very well for us. Some libraries that I have talked to actually take a customer’s/patron’s drivers license. If you have other questions, please feel free to contact me.