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Research Libraries Redeploy Loaner Laptops to Aid Students during COVID-19 Closures

Last Updated on May 18, 2020, 3:02 pm ET

student using laptop computer, with dog looking on
Amanda Domingues, photo courtesy
Cornell University Library

In a hurry to leave campus in March before the start of online classes, Cornell University doctoral student Amanda Domingues packed up suitcases full of clothes, boxes of books, her dog, and her computer—which, she later discovered, was broken.

“When I logged in to Zoom, I found out my audio wasn’t working,” she said.

But thanks to a laptop loan program run by Cornell University Library, Domingues was soon able to use a reliable computer for her virtual courses in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, her graduate student group discussions, and her teaching assistant duties for an undergraduate class on ethics and the environment.

“I sent the library a message on a Friday and by Tuesday the computer was here,” she said. “It was amazing.”

In ordinary times, libraries lend laptops and other technology—including cameras and projectors—to students for short periods of time, usually for several hours or up to a few days. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, with library buildings closed and most students away from campus, libraries have repurposed this equipment to lend to students who do not have their own devices. These new lending programs offer extended checkout periods for the remainder of the semester or longer.

At Iowa State University this spring, the library launched a home delivery service to increase access to essential technology and resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Tech Lending Delivery program provides students with off-campus access to laptops, iPads, hotspots, and additional equipment essential to completing online coursework. The University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library also established a program this semester to ship laptops to students who are no longer on campus.

In some cases, libraries work in partnership with their university’s information technology department to distribute computers to students in need. At Penn State University, the library’s Strategic Technologies department provided nearly 100 all-in-one public workstations and 40 Chromebooks to Penn State Information Technology to loan to students who do not have their own computer equipment.

“These machines will go a long way toward helping us to be able to provide students, faculty and staff with technology during this transition period,” said Dace Freivalds, the library’s interim associate dean for strategic technologies.

In March, the University of Maryland Libraries collaborated with the university’s campus IT division to create virtual workspaces for students that incorporated the libraries’ desktop machines, which allowed students to gain access to the extensive applications available on library computers, and the libraries contributed about 85 library classroom laptops to students for extended loans for the rest of the semester. At the University of Houston (UH), the library loaned 95 of its laptops to UH Information Technology to be reimaged and distributed to students currently without access to computers.

And at Cornell University, the library had shipped 59 laptops to students as of mid-May.

“It’s a practical way we can help support Cornell’s educational programs during this difficult time,” said Simeon Warner, associate university librarian overseeing the library’s information technology. “It’s certainly useless for us to have a stack of laptops sitting in a closed building. They should go into the hands of students who need them.”