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Laptop computer use in the Health Sciences Library.

Readers may wish to consult CIL, Volume 7 Number 9, a theme issue on the topic of portable computers.

Five years ago, it was impossible to envision the vital role that laptop computers would play in the everyday functioning of the East Carolina University (ECU) Health Sciences Library. What began as an infrequently used convenience has evolved into an integral part of library service. Although laptop computers are usually seen as portable conveniences inferior to their full-sized counterparts, the Health Sciences Library has been using and will continue to use laptops in situations where full-sized workstations may have always been deemed necessary. New roles will continue to develop for the laptop computer as the library moves into local area networks and beyond.

The first thought that comes to mind at the mention of laptop computers is portability. Indeed, the first portable computers in this library were intended for use when traveling. The limitations of the hardware were such that the machines were not practical for everyday use. These IBM machines had two 3.5-inch floppy drives that used double-density disk, and the screen size and clarity were such that no one would want to look at and work with for long periods at a time. Although these machines were portable, they were quite heavy to carry around.

The second series of laptops purchased for use in the library were a vast improvement on the earlier models. These Zenith laptops were 8088 machines with two double-density drives and a screen that was easy on the eyes. When computer classes were offered in the library, these machines provided easy setup and efficient use of space; their availability would also eliminate the need to borrow full-sized workstations from the microcomputer lab, where competition for access can be fierce. When not required for library use, the laptops could be checked out and taken home by library staff.

Early Use Limited to Online Searching

In 1988 there were four librarians using two IBM PCs (with no hard disk storage), exclusively for literature searching. The limitations of the hardware and the competition for access made applications other than online searching impossible. The reference department is housed in three rooms; the entire area is 10 feet wide and 60 feet long. The main room (30'x 10') housed the reference librarians, the middle area (15'x 10') was devoted to online searching, and the third room (15'x 10') was the department head's office.

The main office was commonly referred to as "the bus," since the only possible arrangement of the desks resembled the layout of bus seats. When another position was added to the department in 1989, the existing hardware resources were even less adequate than before, and the space had to be more efficiently used. More computers with more capabilities were needed, and the increase in staff size made it necessary to use the online search room for office space.

The library administration felt the time was rapidly approaching when each librarian would require a computer for his or her exclusive use. The use of laptops in the department would provide computer access for each librarian and permit much more efficient use of the limited space. A laptop computer would fit on a much smaller table (23.5" by 45.5") than would be required by a full-sized microcomputer (typically, a table in the range of 29.5" by 47.5"). In this space configuration, every inch counted.

We again went with Zenith, buying five SupersPort 286 machines. The functionality of laptop computers had greatly increased since the first Zeniths had been purchased, while the cost had come down; these machines did not cost significantly more than full-sized workstations. The screens had improved, and 20 megabyte hard disks were available. The keyboards on these machines were approximately the size of full-sized keyboards, making long-term use more feasible. The addition of internal modems and inexpensive external color monitors provided each librarian with a fully functional computer workstation in a minimal amount of space. Not only could literature searching be done at the desk, but each librarian could now access word processing and a variety of other applications as well.

Laptop as Solution

Laptop computers provided the perfect solution to our crisis. Our space could be effectively utilized, while providing each librarian with a computer for his or her exclusive use. The new computers would have much greater capabilities than the equipment that was previously available, allowing all staff to use a variety of software (such as word processors and database managers) that was becoming necessary for performing work tasks.

We soon began to appreciate many hidden benefits that we had not foreseen. Our reference librarian's average fourteen to twenty hours a week at the reference desk, and a portable computer has made slow periods much more productive. A small laptop computer has not presented a barrier to clientlibrarian interaction as a large workstation might have done.

The librarian remains easily visible, and the client does not hesitate to interrupt when assistance is needed. When we acquired the laptops they were still fairly novel and the presence of one in the public area often generated new opportunities for staffclient interaction. Since each librarian has access to his or her laptop all day (and off duty), the level of computer literacy for all the reference librarians has automatically and painlessly increased. This increased confidence and knowledge can be very useful in discussing computer applications with clients.

A full-sized workstation at the reference desk would present a security problem after the librarians leave for the day; the laptop computer leaves the desk when the librarian does. The laptops are secured at night when not in use; more often than not, however, they go home with their librarian. Since all the librarians in the library are on a tenure track and are required to earn a second master's degree for tenure, the laptop computer has proved as invaluable in completing school requirements as in other aspects of library operations.

Visibility and High Profile

While not being the first to jump on every technological bandwagon, the Health Sciences Library has a firm commitment to and reputation for supporting and incorporating technological advances. Laptop computers in use at the reference desks are visible and present a high profile, further enhancing this image of the library.

The professional image of the librarians has been enhanced as well, making clients aware of the routine use of and familiarity with new technologies. New opportunities have arisen for librarians to serve as consultants on an increasing range of hardware and software applications. What had begun as an expediency measure was having undreamedof benefits.

We have had the laptop computers in place in the reference department for three and a half years now. This arrangement does have some disadvantages. The library has always been selfsufficient in maintaining the various hardware configurations in place; however, laptop computers are not easily repaired. The LCD screens are very difficult to see in some kinds of light and from some angles; the external monitor eliminated this problem in the office but was not a practical solution in other areas.

Because they are portable, laptops are much more susceptible to theft, and extra security is required. At the end of each day, we lock them in a cabinet in a locked office. These difficulties, however, have not outweighed the unique advantages laptop computers provide in our situation.

The main disadvantage we have faced is the limited expansion capabilities of laptop computers. We had carefully selected a machine that had an expansion chassis with card slots available at extra cost. However, when we reached the point that the 286 processor, 20 megabyte hard disk, and 640K of memory were insufficient, the capabilities could not be sufficiently improved with the existing machines. We are now moving into the network phase in the library and have decided to buy new laptops with more capabilities to replace the existing machines.

However, while the industry trend has been toward smaller and lighter machines for increased portability, we felt these machines would not prove adequate for desktop machines. The small keyboards that are available would be difficult to use on a continual basis. Not many portable computers are now available that have expansion units; we need a machine that can accommodate an Ethernet board for network access. Those laptop computers that do meet our requirements are much more expensive than comparable desktop microcomputers.

Networking the Laptops

Fortunately for us, laptop computers are not the only ones getting smaller. Full-sized machines are now available that are no larger physically than the laptop computers currently in use. When we could not locate a new laptop computer to fit our needs, we ordered full-sized microcomputers for the reference department. The laptop computers currently in use will go on to fulfill a new destiny. With the presence of a network in the library, anyone can access any computer application from any point.

Laptop computers will be ideally suited to provide access to the network at the reference desks and in other areas such as the conference room and the circulation desk. Adapters are available that allow network access through the printer port without a network card. The limitations in hard disk size and speed of the laptops will be minimized when accessing the network file server. The laptop computer will make it even easier to take full advantage of networked applications because it can be moved and used at any point where there is a network connector. Networked printers will allow any documents to be sent to any printer along the network.

A single laptop can be used by all librarians when they are at the reference desk; each person's files will be on the file server, and they can be accessed only by those who have rights of access. Librarians on the second floor reference desk will no longer have to send clients downstairs for answers requiring Medline or other networked reference tools; everything can be accessed from everywhere. In the conference room, the laptop computer will make it possible to generate meeting minutes and group documents as they develop, which can be displayed via overhead projection. At the circulation desk, laptops will provide access to both the networked applications and the integrated library system. Outside the physical confines of the library, the laptop computers will greatly facilitate our efforts to educate users of health sciences information resources throughout eastern North Carolina.

We are moving into a new and exciting era at the Health Sciences Library, and the laptop computer that has become such an integral part of our work will move with us. The opportunities that a local area network affords will be greatly increased through the use of laptop computers. As capabilities increase and costs decrease, use of the laptop computer be considered in a variety of situations to increase flexibility and maximize resources. What began as a seldom-used convenience has become an important part of library operations; as technology has continued to evolve, so has the role of the portable computer. Its numerous advantages and capabilities will continue to make it an indispensable tool.
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Title Annotation:East Carolina University
Author:Powell, Tracy E.
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:1853
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