Why Public Libraries Need to Proactively Teach Chromebooks to the Public

Ten years ago, I started my current public library job in Takoma Park, Maryland. Soon after I started the job, several Hurricane Katrina refugees arrived at my public library. It's scary to lose your entire city to a hurricane. When you show up in a new city, it's vital that the people you meet welcome you as valued members of their community.

One of these refugees, Desiree, was a wheelchair user. When she asked me for help in obtaining a donated computer, I put her at the front of my list of waiting recipients. When a donated Dell desktop came in, I set it up for her in her apartment and told her to contact me when it wasn't working.

Over the years, I visited her apartment to provide tech support, but I didn't feel the burden of tech support as being heavy – until she obtained a Google Chromebook.

The Benefits of Chromebooks

Chromebooks are, in general, easy to use. But if you've never used a Chromebook, someone has to show you the ropes. She needed a lightweight, reliable, easy-to-use laptop that was also affordable. A Chromebook suited all of these needs.

So I purchased a Chromebook, delivered it to her, and gave her an orientation. She caught on pretty quickly, but still had questions. So I visited her a second and a third time. Each time I visited her, I became more convinced that public libraries need to be teaching Chromebooks proactively.

This laptop so clearly met all of her needs, but the burden for supporting her was falling entirely on my shoulders. When she asked me for a lesson in using Google Hangouts, I cringed. I just didn't have the free time to give her a lesson and let her develop a comfort level with that videoconferencing tool. However, I also knew this is exactly what she needed to combat the loneliness and isolation she was encountering in her life situation.

Meanwhile, at my public library job, two colleagues of mine in other departments in the city government asked me about my Chromebook. They were both interested in buying one, but wanted to try it out first at home. Both of them are very computer savvy, but had never put their hands on a Chromebook. They were clueless as to the capabilities and limitations of this laptop.

Easy to Use in Theory … But Not in Practice

Life is full of counterintuitive situations. A Chromebook is a laptop that claims it's so easy, you don't need to teach people how to use it. Guess what? That claim is true in theory, but not in practice.

Despite my best efforts, I let down a refugee who was feeling isolated and lonely. I should have been spending more time getting my public library to offer Chromebook workshops and maybe even loaner Chromebooks for people to try out at home.

If your public library is not doing that right now, you might consider looking into it. Chromebooks are an affordable tool that can help the most vulnerable. If libraries are not proactively promoting this tool, the vulnerable will be even more vulnerable. That's not why I show up at my public library job.

Phil Shapiro has been working on digital inclusion in the Washington, D.C. area for the past 25 years. He most recently launched this digital inclusion crowdfunding campaign. In addition to writing for Opensource.com, he writes for MAKE magazine and TechSoup for Libraries.    

Image: Rachel Wente-Chaney / CC: BY-NC-SA