K-12 library media specialists should take note of a developing trend: Several college and university libraries have begun to trade their books for laptop computers that students can check out and use within the library for their research.

The most recent example is Pennsylvania State University, which tore the shelves out of its undergraduate library last summer, rewired the whole place, and turned it into the university’s first digital library. Now, students can come 24 hours a day, sign out one of 50 laptop computers, and plug in at a relatively private desk.

“The books are gone, the newspapers are gone, the journals are gone. And yet they aren’t really gone at all. They’re just available in a new format,” Provost John A. Brighton said as Penn State formally introduced the new library Feb. 10. “We invested in this library because we believe it will improve learning.”

A few hours later, junior Christine Williams sat before one of the computers studying for an 8:30 p.m. test in business administration.

She owns a laptop of her own, but it’s too slow. So she checked out a university laptop–with a fast Pentium II processor–and logged onto the university network. There, she could page through the slides her professor used during class lectures. It’s a far cry from laboring in a busy 200-terminal computer lab.

“No. 1, it’s more private. It’s comfortable. You have space to work with,” said Ms. Williams, 21, of Philadelphia. “And it’s convenient.”

Comfort factor

Aside from the absence of books, what’s different about Penn State’s new undergraduate library–one of several libraries on campus–is its comfort factor: Students can sit in a cubicle and study, rather than juggling papers and books at a regular computer terminal.

Students can still do all the usual things–go online, search dozens of electronic databases for journal and newspaper articles, browse an electronic encyclopedia, compose papers or spreadsheets. But they can’t take the laptops out of the library.

The machines in Penn State’s new library are equipped with Microsoft’s Office 97 suite of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and students are allowed to download plug-ins from the internet. When the laptops are checked back in, their hard drives are erased and the software is reinstalled for security purposes.

For its part, the library benefits by getting more study space. Instead of having a room full of computers or encyclopedias, the library has a room full of desks where students can either study or use a mobile computer. Students looking to check out books, meanwhile, can choose from eight other campus libraries.

Penn State is following the lead of other universities. Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis has a digital library, and Mansfield University of Pennsylvania launched its laid-back laptop library in 1996.

Penn State University

http://www.psu.edu

Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis

http://www.iupui.edu

Mansfield University

http://www.mnsfld.edu