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Technology in the Reading Room

At Lamont and Hilles libraries, students borrow laptops just as they'd borrow books. At the Gutman Library, construction has begun on a new technology center that will include wireless Ethernet options. At Baker, at Lamont, and at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Library, wireless networks are already in use. Details are still being settled at the new Andover–Harvard Theological Library—expected to open on June 25—but according to Interim Librarian Malcolm Hamilton, "We're configuring part of the new building for wireless hubs—and we expect to lend either smart cards or actual laptops to our students."

Throughout the 2000-2001 academic year, Harvard's libraries have added increasingly sophisticated technologies for end users. After five months of planning in the Harvard College Library (HCL), Lamont—in conjunction with HCL's Information Technology Services—began loaning laptops. According to John Howard, HCL Librarian for Information Technology, "Portable computing devices are becoming a basic part of the academic toolkit, and access to networked information is as fundamental as access to the books on the shelves." As of the spring semester, HCL loans laptops at Hilles as well as Lamont. And Lamont has joined the growing number of Harvard libraries providing wireless Ethernet connections for students, faculty, and researchers who bring their own laptops.

At the John F. Kennedy School of Government Library, Director Ellen Isenstein commented on her Library's move to the wireless Ethernet. "First of all, it's not only in the Library. It's in the [ARCO] Forum as well. One of the main goals of this project has been to make it easier to use laptops in more places. Space is such an issue, and if you only have X number of network ports, then—effectively—you limit laptop use. So right now, we're in two big areas, and we expect to move to more areas in the future."

According to Isenstein, students at the Kennedy School access the wireless network by borrowing an Ethernet card from the reserve desk. "We've put these cards on reserve—and reserve materials are checked out for three hours. We've had several complaints about the three-hour time limit, but that's the way the reserve system works. It would be very difficult to say that this particular reserve item can be checked out for more than three hours or less. So we're just doing the same borrowing period as for all other reserve items." With their cards installed, Kennedy School students are allowed to move around the campus: "We realized," said Isenstein, "that you cannot restrict the use of these smart cards to the library, because people are putting the cards into their own laptops. They're going to go out and get a cup of coffee and they're not going to leave their laptops behind."

Clearly, the issues change if libraries loan costly laptops as opposed to less-expensive Ethernet cards. Laptop-borrowing policies at Lamont are stringent out of the need to keep security risks at a minimum. Users are permitted to use borrowed computers within the library only, and they must sign statements agreeing, among other things, to pay $3,000 fines should they lose a laptop or hold on to it for 24 hours or more. Users can only save their work on diskettes—not to the hard drive—as all machines are 'cleaned' automatically when the computer is started. After each borrowing period, laptops are fully inspected at the circulation desk by library staff.

For Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library—which serves scholars from across the University—a wireless network is still in the future: "Lamont, Hilles, and the Kennedy School have constituencies of their own students who can roam around on campus networks as well as in the library," notes Radcliffe IT director Kim Brookes. "The Schlesinger serves people from a variety of Harvard schools—as well as numerous scholars from outside the University. We've not yet cracked the nut that would allow students to roam from one school to another without changing settings—or perhaps even installing a different Ethernet card. We will consider going to wireless once that's sorted out."

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.