PeteCioppaby Pete Cioppa, Director of Technology Integration, Fayetteville Free Library

I have always had a fascination with the way things work.  When I was a kid, the coolest thing in the world to me was taking things apart.  So, in an effort to prolong my childhood as long as possible, I began to wonder how I could incorporate my love of “controlled” destruction into my current job.  And thus, the Fayetteville Free Library’s (FFL) Computer Take-a-Part series was born. In this series, patrons of all ages, come together to take apart all sorts of electronics and machines.

When we first pitched this idea to our Executive Director she had some very interesting questions:

  • Where will you get the stuff?
  • What happens to the parts when you are done?
  • What can be learned?
  • You aren’t going to take apart anything that is dangerous, right?

So let’s start answering these questions!

Where will you get the stuff?

takeapartWe thought that it would be a great idea to ask our community for old electronics and other mechanical items.  People are always looking for ways to legally get rid of electronic waste and, since it did not matter to us if the item was functional, we thought this would be a great way to help some people out and learn at the same time.  That being said, we learned that it is critically important that you establish a list of items you are looking for that you want to take apart.  When we first started asking for donations we asked for anything we could get, but quickly realized that accepting someone’s donation of, say, 10 old-school Cathode Ray Tube TVs was not in our best interest as we will eventually have to dispose of the parts safely and legally.

What happens to the parts when you are done?

Ideally, we use these programs as an opportunity to not only take things apart, but to also rebuild and reuse them, if possible.  Most of the items we have taken apart have been put back together so the next group can partake in the action.  However, sometimes parts are glued together or just plain stuck.  These situations require a little more elbow grease and often result in the total destruction of the item.  When this happens, we do our best to recycle everything possible.  When we have electronic components (such as circuit boards and power cables) we bring them to a local computer recycling facility.  Our county also provides a few weekends a year when people can bring their broken electronics to a recycle center free of charge.

What can be learned?

Tons of awesome skills!  Anything from how to use a screwdriver and what the different heads are called to what a specific chip on a computer’s motherboard controls; the possibilities are truly endless.  The best part is that you, as a librarian, don’t have to be an expert in everything.  We have had community experts lead some of our programs, but it is also fun to promote the program as something where the participants learn with you.  Just make sure that you have relevant resources in the room.  That way, when a patron asks a question that stumps you, you can use it as an opportunity to show off your super awesome librarian skills!

You aren’t going to take apart anything that is dangerous, right?

Correct, the last thing we want is someone getting exposed to the mercury present in CRT TV’s and other monitors.  That is why we put so much thought into creating a list that includes ONLY the items we WILL accept.  We don’t take TVs, monitors, power supplies, and other items with large capacitors.  We have found that some of the best things to take apart are old computers and items with lots of moving parts such as fans.

Finally, I just wanted to mention another one of my favorite “controlled destruction” programs, a computer dissection series.  In this program, participants worked in teams to take apart some old PCs that had been removed from the library during a hardware upgrade.  Most of the internal hardware was obsolete, but the basic architecture was similar to new computers.  So the participants were able to learn about the different components that make PCs work such as expansion slots, memory, where the processor was located and what it looks like.  After we tore down the computers, we rebuilt them and turned them on to make sure that everything was connected properly.  We had a great time and received lots of positive feedback from the event.  And the best part… The total cost of that program was $0.