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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2009

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Vol. 29 No. 8 — September 2009
FEATURE
Oh No, I Lost All of My Work!
by Martin Zimerman

Librarianship became a second career for me when I retired from being a computer specialist for a large municipal government agency. In my prior life as a computer specialist, I was more concerned with setting up operating systems and loading application software than I was with helping individuals who asked, “How do I do that in Word?”

Now, years later, as the electronic services librarian at the Brooklyn campus library of Long Island University (LIU), I find myself worrying more about the latter.

The mission of the Library Information Technology department is to provide computing and networking technology and services to all users of the library.
The Coordinator of Technology Services and I install, monitor, and maintain various computer systems in the library. We collaborate closely with Campus
IT to support the teaching and learning activities of the faculty and students, and ensure the university computing policies and guidelines are adhered
to.

LIU Brooklyn Campus Library—Computer Types by Area
Area Cyberlab Database Paralegal/OPAC

Number of Computers

23

22

15/6

Computer Type Dell OptiPlex 745 Dell OptiPlex 755 Dell OptiPlex 270

Deletebackups.vbs script

path1=”T:\documents”
path2=”T:\documents\recover”
killdate=date()-7
arfiles=Array()
Set fso = CreateObject(“Scripting.FileSystemObject”)
SelectFiles path1,killdate,arfiles,true
SelectFiles path2,killdate,arfiles,true
ndeleted=0
for n=0 to ubound(arfiles)
arfiles(n).delete true
if err.number <> 0 then
wscript.echo “Unable to delete:” & arfiles(n).path
else
ndeleted=ndeleted +1
end if
on error goto 0
next

sub SelectFiles(spath,vkilldate,arfilestokill,bincludesubfolders)
set folder=fso.getfolder(spath)
set files = folder.files
for each file in files
dtlastmodified =null
on error resume next
dtlastmodified = file.datelastmodified
on error goto 0
if not isnull(dtlastmodified) Then
if dtlastmodified < vkilldate then
count=ubound(arfilestokill)+1
redim preserve arfilestokill(count)
set arfilestokill(count)=file
end if
end if
next

if bincludesubfolders then
for each fldr in folder.subfolders
SelectFiles fldr.path,vkilldate,arfiles,true
next
end if
end sub

Instructions for Using the VBS Script

• Open Notepad and write all the lines from the code here, and save that file as deletebackups.vbs.

• Schedule it to be run (as shown).

• Go to Control Panel

>Scheduled Tasks
>Add Scheduled Task
>Scheduled Task Wizard Window
>Click Next to continue
>Choose file deletebackups.vbs to run
>Choose option “When my Computer Starts”
>Click Next to continue
>Enter the same (administrator) password that you used to log on
>Click Next to continue
>Click Finish

• Then restart your machine and look into the folder T:\Documents and T:\Documents\Recover, to confirm that files older than 7 days have been removed.

Save, Save, Save

Having been in the computer industry for more years than I care to think about, I’m reminded of one of the earliest tenets of word processing: Save your work, and save it often. I am a strong advocate of saving documents using Ctrl-S. This is the shortcut to save a file and has saved (no pun intended) many a Word document. However, no matter how many admonitions I’ve given to save, save, save, the results are frequently the same—people forget. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see that people trust computers not to lose their work. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, aging computer hardware, a possibly questionable electrical supply, and sometimes erroneous keystrokes, things will happen that endanger our work on computers.

I’m responsible for setting up the computers in such a way that they will not cause problems for the students. It’s a bit better these days, with the use of USB flash drives rather than always-failing floppies. Not to say that USB flash drives never fail—they fail, but far less frequently. The problems encountered by students using Word or Excel usually occur either through a power loss or when the computer freezes. It’s very difficult, not to mention traumatic, to have to tell students that their work is irretrievably lost. At that point, the loss of 20 pages and hours of work can cause demonstrable grief and anger.

Ordinarily, when Microsoft Word freezes, it places a somewhat recoverable copy somewhere on the system, which, when the system is rebooted, asks you if you want to recover the document. That doesn’t seem like a problem, until you take into consideration the security measures taken by our very own IT department. Several years ago, we implemented the use of the Faronics Corp. program Deep Freeze. Faronics’ Deep Freeze is a software solution requiring no hardware modifications at all. The program accommodates the various file structures that we use, namely FAT32 and NTFS, as well as supporting SATA and IDE drives. We initially had installed this program because some students were doing inappropriate things on the computers, thereby inviting in viruses, Trojans, and worms and causing all types of mischief on the PCs. Our intent was not to stop or block anything except malicious intrusions. We had to find a way to balance our security needs with those of student productivity and, at the same time, not slow down the systems. The way Deep Freeze worked, the computer was reset to its default condition each time it was rebooted. Deep Freeze functions by creating a virtual snapshot of the computer each day. At the end of the day, that snapshot is compared to the current state of the machine, and anything that has changed is discarded upon reboot. The problem, as you may have guessed by now, was that any recovery files created by Word or Excel were also removed.

When I saw this happening more and more frequently, I decided to try to put together a plan.

A Plan to Recover ‘Lost’ Documents

At the Brooklyn campus of LIU, the library’s public computer labs are segmented into three areas. There is a cyberlab area consisting of about 23 computers that are fairly modern, a reference database area with 22 computers that are the newest machines on the floor, and an area of two older sections called paralegal and OPAC with 15 computers and 6 computers, respectively.

All of the machines are running on the Windows XP operating system with Service Pack 2 or 3. In addition to that, they all have Microsoft Office 2003 with Service Pack 1. All of the machines were originally created from a cloned image on a template machine and were functionally identical.

Thawspace— I did some research and discovered that Deep Freeze would allow for an area called the Thawspace, or T: drive, that was impervious to the reboot. We created a Documents folder in the root directory of the T: drive and a Recovery folder within the Documents folder. Inside the Recovery folder we created a directory for each of the programs (i.e., one folder for Word, one folder for Excel, and one folder for PowerPoint). A modification to the Options dialog box would then point to the proper directories in the Thawspace. Under File Locations, the Modify button also will allow you to point to the proper locations within the Thawspace. The named documents should be pointed at the T:\Documents directory, and the Auto Recover files should be pointed at the T:\Docu
ments\Recover\Program Name directory. A document saved to the Thawspace will not be deleted upon reboot. The Thawspace is exempt from deletion.

Word Solutions— That sounded good and turned out to be a partial solution. I say partial solution because a student actually had to proactively save the document to the Thawspace for this to work. No matter how many times I would tell the students or post those instructions or hand the students printed instructions, they were still losing their work. Not as often as before, but still, some additional tinkering was required. I thought that there must be some way to get Word itself to intervene in the process, and indeed there was. In the Word and Excel Tools menu, there are choices to be made that help the problem. In Tools > Options > Save, there are several options that should always be checked off. Remember, any changes made to the system and to Word or Excel should be done from the administrator side and the local side of the machine as well. You must also remember to thaw out the machines being worked on before you make the changes, or Deep Freeze will discard your changes when you reboot.

1. Always create a backup copy. There is no automatic backup copy made by Word.

2. Allow background saves.

3. Save Auto Recover info every 2 minutes (you could set this interval to another number).

Now Word, Excel, and PowerPoint will create a timed backup copy for the recovery folder, even if the student did not specifically and intentionally save it with a valid file name. We set the Save Auto Recover function time to a low number so that saves would occur very often. This means that a student could not lose more than 2 minutes of work per document even if the system crashed.

We also needed to set the Options settings for File Locations so that the document being typed was sent to the proper Thawspace area automatically. The Auto Recover files were sent to the T:\Documents\Recover\Program Name folder within the Thawspace.

You may also want to set the individual computers to show “hidden files,” as the recovery files (shown as .asd files) may not show properly. These programs have default locations, and I understand that they may deposit the Auto Recover documents in temporary file locations that may be hard to find. It would probably still work if you just used the default settings, but we felt more secure knowing that the program would deposit the files to a recognized location.

While we were at it, we set similar functionality for Excel and PowerPoint documents (each program needs to be configured individually).

Finally, this was starting to look workable. Using this combination of file locations and recover functions, complaints about lost work decreased measurably. We were happy too, because our computer environment was safe, usable, friendly, and well-protected.

The Issue of Privacy— One additional issue was brought up by one of the reference librarians. The work files being saved on the computers stayed there until we could get one of the student assistants to manually go into the folders and delete them. This was felt by some to be a privacy issue, so I had to find a way to delete the files on a regular basis. The answer? We had one of our computer science students write a Visual Basic script that would look at the files in the default directories, and if a file creation date was 7 days prior or older, that file would be automatically deleted. This file would “trigger” whenever the computer was rebooted, so it checked for that file descriptor at least once a day. Since Deep Freeze mandates a given maximum partition size for the T: drive, this also solved the problem of overflowing the available space on the drive.

We know from surveys done on our campus that the library’s computing infrastructure is the most widely used on campus, even including the IT labs. This being the case, we feel that every possible effort should be made not only to provide a comfortable student computing experience, but a safe computing environment as well. We feel that these changes for the better with the built-in transparency of background file saves will only improve the students’ library computing experience.

Conclusion

Early reviews are in, and the students seem satisfied with the changes. There are far fewer calls for help due to machine crashes with resultant lost work. Even with these changes, though, we continue to post instructions to “save your work every 5 minutes” at each workstation. Some things never change.

To summarize: The first line of defense is to name and save your files when you first create the documents. If you name and save your file in the T:\Documents folder, you will not lose your work, even if the computer crashes. The second line of defense is setting your application to Auto Recover every few minutes.

This solved the problem and gave us a very complete solution.


Martin Zimerman is an assistant professor working in the library at Long Island University, Brooklyn campus. He is the electronic services librarian at this large, urban campus. His email address is martin.zimerman@liu.edu.

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