Memo from my future self: With the advent of the Model B+, and then the Raspberry Pi 2 the year after this was written, some of the things (like no Windows for a Raspberry Pi, and the relative lack of horsepower) are no longer true. The prices present in the print article have since fluctuated. As the Pi continues to iterate, this will look increasingly dated, but this was also the first solo article accepted for publication, providing the needed confidence boost that would lead to other articles being published. The main idea, though, of the Raspberry Pi as the backbone for loaning out computers that can leave the building, still stands. And I hope that a library somewhere has tried this and can report back information about success.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), and is reprinted here with permission.
We're surrounded by computers these days. They make our telephone calls, they process our money, and they deliver us high- (and low-) quality entertainment through books, apps, movies, music, or blog posts. Computers and Internet access are requirements of our modern lives. Some schools are taking note of this, using computers in the classroom or rolling the purchase price of a laptop or tablet into the cost of tuition.
Libraries have been providing computer and Internet access to their users for decades. There are never enough computers to go around, and the time imits on access that get adopted in the name of fairness often make it more difficult for people to accomplish tasks that can take the computer-savvy hours to do correctly, like applying for jobs or writing resumes. Library computing resources are tied up in the ibrary building on desktop computers. We offer wireless access...inside the building, for those who are able to afford and bring their own devices. Some libraries have gone so far as to offer laptop checkouts, but they're usually restricted to in-building usage. That makes sense, because no library wants to have to explain why their $500-a-pop computers all walked out the door without being checked out and why they have no idea where they are now. In restricting access to the building, though, we can only help those who come to the building and stay. It's not really a great way to get computing resources out into the community.
Then, in 2013, the Raspberry Pi Foundation completed the Model B, a $35 Linux computer the size of a credit card intended to make it easy to teach students in the United Kingdom to program. It doesn't have a whole lot of horsepower under the hood (the processing equivalent of the original Xbox or a first-generation Pentium), but it's perfect for a library looking to find a way to get computing resources out into the community. As long as the target household has a television (according to Nielsen Media, in 2011, there were already an average of 2.5 telvisions per household in the United States), the Pi can be hooked up to it and computing can be done at home, on a user's schedule, instead of a library's. That makes the Pi a perfect centerpiece for a low-cost, low-risk computer check-out program
In addition to the cost, the Respberry Pihas some advantages over traditional Windows or Microsoft machines.
- No Windows! Site licensing fees can get complicated quickly, whether you're in a small or a large library system. Don't add more seats to your license fee, paying Microsoft (or Apple) when you don't have to. Most Linux-based operating systems also come packaged with Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), so the experience of the user can be configured to look like a Windows computer. You can also find and install packages that can read and write Microsoft Office-compatible files, create images, record video, and perform other functions that people do on their Windows/Mac PCs daily.
- Multipurpose. A Raspberry Pi also has input-output pins that make it possible for users to write either programs that use only the computer or use real-world objects and their data. if you've been thinking about makerspaces, you may have a burgeoning crew interested in creating things on a computer. Having "outgrown" their Arduinos, they want to slap sensors on things and collect data, or otherwise are curious about the world around them, and the Raspberry Pi can be the central processor for those kinds of projects.
- Powerful video. Despite its small size and relative lack of raw computing power, the Pi can output high-definition video and graphics to compatible televisions and projectors. You'll need to purchase some video codecs to fully unlock the abiity of the Pi to play everything, but they're pretty cheap (about $3 per codec). So not only can students create a presentation or a video using a Pi, they can then take the computer itself where they want to go and output it on a projector or television.
- Small power footprint. The Raspberry Pi needs about the same amount of power as a high-end smartphone. With an investment in a power pack and a small screen (both more expensive than the computer itself), the Pi can be taken anywhere it is needed, even away from the grid.
Why Not Pi?
There are some disadvantages, too. I think the advantages outweigh the problems, but these could be deal-breakers, depending on your library.
- No Windows. Because the Raspberry Pi is running the ARM instruction set, like in a smartphone, instead of the x86 instruction set, like desktops and laptops, there's really no modern Windows (or OSX) installation for it. This removes a lot of potential software from being used on a Raspberry Pi.
- No horsepower. The Model B functions with about the same processing power as a desktop from the early 2000s -- with much swankier graphics. You can goose it a bit more with some built-in overclocking, but your Pi isn't going to be able to crunch severely data-intensive things with lightning quickness. Minecraft may be stretching things a bit for a Pi.
- No built-in wireless anything. To hit their price point, size, and desired power consumption, the Pi had to forego an onboard Wi-Fi chip. There are plenty of dongles and things that can be purchased that work with the Pi, but you'll have to make a small investment to get proper wireless.
- No support. There's no official corporate support system, like there would be with other computers. Like most Free (Libre) and Open Source software, if something breaks, or you think it woul be cooler with a new feature, you can ask for help from other coders and try to dangle incentives to get them to bite on it, or you can go hack it yourself. It's worth checking to see if your IT department is willing to troubleshoot and work with your Pi fleet.
The Price of Pi
The required kit can be put together with all new components for about $83 per Pi -- if we add the shipping and order from as few places as possible, it will probably end up around $100 total for each Raspberry Pi. So, for the price of an ultrabook that would stay in the building, you can field five Raspberry Pi units that can leave the building. If things get lost or broken, the charge to users and to the library system is significantly less per item. Even if things go and don't come back, you're putting computing resources out in the community.
Using the Pi with a 3G/4G modem and subscription paid by the library (perhaps your broadband telecom would be willing to cut you a deal on that) would ensure Internet access in whatever home checked out your computer. Check your broadband telecom terms of service to see whether they would allow you to check out the connection, too. While there are programs to help lowe-income families get Inetner access, they're often tied to the federal poverty level, which leaves many families in the gap between qualifying for helpand bein able to afford Internet access on their own. An Internet-enabled Pi from the library would allow teens to do research (or play Minecraft) without overrunning any data plan limitations on their phones, and without leaving footprints of their browsing habits for parents to snoop. If there are legally-required access restrictions for computing that teenagers or children could use in your community, some mobile broadband providers can set accounts to always have their content filtering systmes on, which might be enough to make them okay under the requirements. Consult your legal representation.
Once everything is purchased and at your doorstep, getting the Pi set up is a fairly simple process. It used to involve downloading an image of an operating system, writing it to an SD card, and then sticking it in the Pi and booting it up. It was a moderately involved process that might make beginners worried they were doing irreprable harm to their newly-acquired computer. Now, with the New Out-Of-Box Software System (NOOBS), all you have to do is download a file and unzip it to the SD card. After you plug the SD card into the Pi and boot it, it will walk you through the process of installing and operating system, after which there will be a short utility to help you configure your new Pi. Then, you're done. If something goes haywire and the operating system gets corrupted, recovering to a clean slate is as simple as accessing the recovery partition on the NOOBS card (hold down the Shift key while the Pi powers on) and reinstalling the operating system. You can even configure the Pi to boot straight into the GUI, so that your users never have to see a command prompt or console if they don't want to. After that's done, install the appropriate software for what you want the Pi to do, and if you want, create a user who doesn't have the power to modify configurations, and you're set! Assemble your kits and let the checkouts begin.
For a little over $100 per computer, you can finally start letting your users access computing resources outside of open hours, where and when it's convenient to them. We want to put power in our users' hands. This could be a way to do it.