Tuesday, May 29, 2012

LLLovely -- Linux Laptop Loaners

From a sys admin at a library system in Washington state, USA (short synopsis, not exact words):

"We loan out laptops to patrons... they need to be sturdy enough to handle just about anything. It works well for students, families who can't afford a laptop full-time, professionals who need a laptop on an emergency basis or who are waiting for their next laptop to be released, lots of reasons."

Since libraries are usually brick and mortar safe havens of free speech and since free speech is part of the philosophical underpinnings of FOSS, the two go hand-in-hand nicely like chocolate and peanut butter. 

(photo by Robert Stein, GPL, Escalator in Seattle, Washington, US library)

Here's what the Linux Laptop Loaner program looks like:

ZaReason dedicates a certain number of machines to each library. A small rural library might have two or three. A city library would start with five and see how their circulation needs are from that point.

The laptop hardware and software is supported by ZaReason (in-country) but the check-in / check-out process is handled by library staff. The same safety measures that work to keep books in good condition work to keep the laptops circulating. If a laptop is returned in poor condition it is sent to repairs the same way a waterlogged book or ripped-page book is sent to be fixed. There is the added step of wiping and reformatting between loans, but the cost of that is covered by the loan fee.

I have always wanted to do a Linux Laptop Loaner program, not just for the fun of it, but because the message of "Hey, Linux is normal / easy to use / does everything I need" is such bliss. It's confirmation that all the volunteers from Stallman, Torvalds, Maddog, Raymond and others have created something of mass, worldwide value, especially on the consumer level.

To bat a few of objections out of the way:

*~*~Excuse 1:

Laptops are expensive, can't loan out a $1,000 laptop and expect to get it back. 

Backpacker loaned me a $30,000 vehicle and I gave it back in great shape. It cost me $35/day unlimited mileage. The $10,000 vehicle I rented most recently was $21/day ($16/day USD). If they can do it; we surely can for a price in-line with the laptop's current day market value, ie a few bucks.

*~*~Excuse 2:

People don't know how to use Linux. It will be a tech support nightmare.

What's the worst that can happen? They return it, ask for a refund on the remaining days of the rental? Not much of a risk. They sign a waiver that backing up data is their responsibility, but that's been industry standard since the beginning. Surprisingly tech support is one of the easier parts of this program.

Excuse 3:

Laptops are delicate.

Not if you build them right. Our favorite laptop testers are:

--> Military because they go places where you probably shouldn't go with a laptop (dusty places, wet places, icky places)

--> Toddlers because they poke things and stick peanut butter sandwiches in open slots.

--> Libraries because it opens up the laptop to *any* environment in that library's coverage area.

Yes, laptops are delicate and they are also dangerous. But have you ever been to a Tool Lending Library? If they can loan me a chainsaw, then I can surely loan them a laptop.

(photo by Chas Redmond, CC Tool Lending Library)

*~*~Excuse 4:

It costs money.

Well yes, that's my least favorite part of CEO-ing a GNU/Linux focused company. But hardware costs money. A lot actually. More than you want to know.

When I was in lllovely Rotarura, my daughter spotted their downtown public library. As soon as her eyes landed on their front door I knew our day's plans were changed. We spent the day at the library with her buried under a stack of books. Sighs, smiles, deep breaths, occasional laughs and surprisingly a few tears from me when she passed along a book about two pets who survived the New Orleans devastation. Libraries are a very important part of our civilisation in whatever form they take (virtual or real life).

I noticed that the library charged $1 per book, $2 per DVD (or similar). The library had found a way to commoditize their process so that they could sustain a larger number of books and a higher quality library. Hum.

I spent over an hour talking with a head librarian, asking about all aspects of how their library functioned & how libraries in NZ function. A Linux Laptop Loaner program has a much greater hope of succeeding here than any place else on earth, lots of reasons why, but back to how it works.

There are three different loan lengths:
1 day
1 week
1 month

Each is at a rate similar to what it would cost to rent / buy a laptop through a different program. Check out Sony on Willis St in Wellington if you have a chance. Look at their little sign on how much it is to rent a laptop. Doesn't seem like much until you notice that it's a 36, 48, or 60 month loan. For five years you could be paying for that laptop! Or three years minimum. That's a very long time. If I can go to the public library and get a laptop with the same functionality for a similar price, then there are fewer reasons to take a risk on a required monthly payment?

More details:

We would try Ubuntu at some libraries, Mint at others and test which ones are best received.

Each library needs to have a geek in-house. We don't plan on pushing GNU/Linux on anyone. That's not how FOSS works. It's free, not forced. So, if you know of any libraries that have FOSS-friendly people on staff, please let me know! Cathy@zareason.com

Let's get solid FOSS machines into the hands of the curious.


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