CEDAR RAPIDS — Public libraries long have seen themselves as great equalizers, and the Cedar Rapids Public Library is now taking that calling a pioneering step into the digital world.
On March 8, the library will start to loan out two kinds of computer tablets for home use, one especially for young children and one for everyone else.
There will be 80 Leap Pad Ultra Learning Tablets for children ages 2 to about 6 or 7, and 50 Google Nexus 7 tablets for everyone else, with an ability to add 50 more of the latter if customer demand warrants it.
The two programs are called Tablets4Tots and Tablets2Go.
Library Director Bob Pasicznyuk said the library today invests about $150,000 a year in digital content such as books and magazines. But if someone doesn’t have a digital device at home, they can’t access that content.
"So we can be providing book after book, magazine services, online databases, homework help for kids," he said. " But if you aren’t in touch with the devices, it really doesn’t affect you."
He said he expects three different kinds of customers to line up for the tablets: Those who don’t have computers for themselves or their children at home, those who want to try out a computer tablet to see if they like it enough to buy one, and those who want to use the tablet inside the library or at a coffee shop or a park rather so they are not pinned down at computer station at a desk in the library.
"This is where the world’s tech is going," Pasicznyuk said. "And we’re squarely just staying in the same mission that we were in before, which is providing access to content and to the Internet."
Pasicznyuk said some libraries do have a small number of e-readers and computer tablets to lend out. The Iowa City Public Library, for instance, has 12 Kindle e-readers to loan out, but Susan Craig, Iowa City’s library director, said demand for the devices is not strong.
Iowa City's library also offers 10 iPads with children’s apps for use in the library.
However, Pasicznyuk said he and his staff have identified only the public library in Eau Claire, Wis., and Hurricane Sandy-impacted libraries in the New York City area as those with robust programs for lending out computer tablets.
A key driving force for the Cedar Rapids library is to "bridge the digital divide" for those who don’t have access to a computer at home, and especially for children and school-aged kids, he said.
"Computers for kids today are like pencils — something they just use," he said.
That is the sentiment, too, that prompted the Kiwanis Club of Cedar Rapids to donate $10,000 to support the Tablets4Tots program, said Laurie Worden, a member of the club’s board.
She said Kiwanis long has been committed to helping children in the community and around the world by donating eyeglasses and shoes, and the club’s investment in the library’s computer tablet program for young children is in line with that commitment, she said.
"We feel strongly as an organization that literacy leads to meeting educational goals, and meeting educational goals leads to avenues out of poverty," said Worden, program coordinator of Workplace Learning Connection at Kirkwood Community College.
The Tablets4Tots program will give prekindergarten children hands-on experience accessing educational programming with a computer device to prepare them "for the rigors of what the new kindergarten is all about," she said.
"We know if kids have success in those first five years of life, when it comes to the love of learning, they just have much better outcomes," she said.
The library’s Pasicznyuk said the 80 Leap Pad tablets for young children cost $140 each, with another $30 each in costs for a case and accessories. The 50 Google Nexus 7 tablets cost about $220 each, with an additional $30 each for a case and accessories.
The Leap Pads will be kept on a shelf near where a library staff member routinely works, while the Google tablets will be stored in a locked cabinet and will handed out upon request.
Pasicznyuk said both tablets come with hard cases, foam lining and protective sleeves for the tablets so they can endure the rigors of being deposited in a book drop or dropped on the kitchen floor, he said.
The Google tablets, he said, are the most expensive items that the library will lend out, and for that reason, it has decided to keep the supply in a locked cabinet to lessen the prospect "they would just go right out the door." He said he doesn’t expect a theft threat for the children’s Leap Pads even without a locked cabinet.
"I’ve yet to meet the mom and dad who said, ‘I’m going down to the library to steal a couple of books,’" he said. "They don’t do that. They tend to be here to advantage their kids, not to steal us blind."
For now, library patrons will be able to check out the tablets for a week at a time. The Leap Pads have applications for drawing and reading and playing games while those using the Google Nexus 7s will need to download material from the library before they leave or from another Wi-Fi location.
John Stoneberg, director of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire, Wis., said his library received a $50,000 grant in 2011 with the suggestion that it be used to provide iPad tablets for lending to library patrons. The library began lending 36 iPads in September 2011 with great success, he said.
The library in Eau Claire, which is about half the size of Cedar Rapids, initially had a waiting list of 300 to 400 to get a chance to take out an iPad. But now patrons can check one out after a wait of a week or two.
The library since has added six iPad Minis to its stable of tablets.
"One of the biggest questions at the beginning, and we weren’t too sure of, either, was people thought, ‘My God, you’re going to lend this expensive device to the public, and they’re not going to return it, they’re going to break it,'" Stoneberg said.
In two and half years and after many hundreds of circulations of the iPads, the Eau Claire library has had only three or four problems, some of which were fixable, he said.
Stoneberg said some of those who check out the iPads are those who can’t afford a computer at home, but some are those who can but don’t want to spend the money, while others are getting acquainted with the device to seek if they want to buy one."It’s been a very good project for the library and good for the way or customers thought about the library," he said. "We didn’t have the problems we thought we were going to have."