The past few years have been rough on public libraries. They have experienced mounting demand for their services -- particularly access to technology and the Internet—and dwindling funds to pay for them (see Library Shutdown in Camden, N.J., this issue).

In many communities, the library is the only place you’ll find a Web-connected computer that’s available to use for free. And as anyone who’s looked for work lately can attest, more employers post job openings online and expect applicants to reply electronically, making the Internet a lifeline for job-seekers. It’s a trend that helps explain the recent 70 percent growth in demand for library computers and wireless Internet access, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

But like most other public institutions, libraries have faced their share of belt-tightening. A majority of states cut library funding in 2009, according to the ALA. And 2010 wasn’t any better, with many library systems absorbing another round of reductions in state and local funding.

So how do you reconcile the fact that libraries have less money to spend at a time when citizens depend onz them more than ever for technology access? Jonathan Ruttenberg thinks he has an answer. Ruttenberg is co-founder of LaptopsAnytime, a California-based company that builds automated laptop-dispensing kiosks. He contends the technology offers a better way for cash-strapped libraries, schools and universities to provide public computers.

The company’s ATM-sized kiosks let users check out a laptop or netbook computer by making a few onscreen choices and swiping their ID or credit card through a card-reader slot. Software inside the kiosk authenticates the user, tracks how long the device is checked out and charges fees, if necessary. When the computer is returned, the kiosk erases any information left on the device, checks for viruses and ensures that the machine is fully charged for the next user. The Internet-connected kiosks also allow the company to fix software problems and upgrade programs remotely on the laptops.

Automating these administrative and support tasks eliminates most of the costs associated with providing computers to the public, Ruttenberg contends. “The reason the total cost of ownership for a $1,000 computer is $3,000 or $5,000 over a given number of years is because there are so many people supporting and maintaining that piece of equipment,” he says. “We can automate most of that.”

Organizations can purchase the kiosks and license software services from LaptopsAnytime or work out other, more creative arrangements, Ruttenberg says. They also can decide whether to offer the service to patrons for free or charge a fee.

San Bernardino County, Calif., is testing a kiosk in its Lewis Library and Technology Center, located in Fontana. The library system absorbed a 12.5 percent budget cut in fiscal 2009-10, according to its annual report, and sees growing demand for technology from patrons.

“Public computers are heavily used in all of our libraries -- especially at the Fontana branch, and especially now when people are trying to find jobs,” says branch manager Alicia Mesa. Even though the Fontana library has several hundred desktop PCs for free public use, there’s often a waiting list for the machines.

The kiosk, which holds six netbooks, lets the library expand the number of computers available to patrons, but users pay a fee directly to LaptopsAnytime to use the machines, Mesa says. “It’s a service we can provide, and it’s not costing us anything extra. The only drawback is we’re asking the patron to, in a sense, rent the computer.”

The Brooklyn, N.Y., Public Library also tested one of the kiosks, with the intention of offering self-service laptops free to library patrons. However, the library decided not to expand the demonstration project, according to a spokesman, because the arrangement didn’t pencil out financially.

It remains to be seen whether the automated kiosk approach will catch on. But it certainly illustrates the tough choices facing local libraries as they try to maintain public access to critical technology in an era of austerity.