When technology fails

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We’ve all been there. The computer that dies or becomes infected with spyware, printers no longer printing, power failures, equipment damage due to power surges, or the internet goes down. I’ve dealt with all of this the last few weeks at the library. The initial reaction is to panic which invariably makes the problem worse. The thing to remember is that it all can be fixed, given some time. Many libraries do not have full IT departments or staff and so library directors have to rely on their own knowledge, staff, or volunteers to solve problems. I don’t think any of us working in libraries today could have predicted the technical knowledge and skill required to run a modern library. Here are just a few things I’ve been dealing with and how I fixed it.

The computers at my library run Windows 7. The patron computers have Microsoft Security Essentials, Microsoft Live Family filters, and Deep Freeze. So outside of the random hardware failure, a simple reboot usually clears up most problems. Occasionally, the internet or LAN goes down. Here too a simple reboot of the modem and routers usually solves the problem – not a recommended procedure because it shortens their life, but it is the easiest solution. If the modem or routers die, simply swapping out dead equipment for new solves that problem. If budgets allow, it doesn’t hurt to have backup equipment of modems and routers.

The office computers also run Windows 7 with the exception of Deep Freeze. Problems are rare but every now and then a spammy toolbar is installed in a browser creating an open doorway to spyware and malware. These kinds of things are difficult to remove. The easiest and quickest solution is to roll the system back using a system restore (may require boot in safemode first). It is possible to do a manual removal but it requires delving into registry files, which is not recommended if you have never done it before.

But what to do about a computer experiencing random hardware problems? Our circulation computer began experiencing random shutdowns about a month ago. In order to troubleshoot it I pulled the Windows 7 manual off the shelf (you should have a manual or two for whatever operating system you use at your library). I worked through all of the suggestions, managing to get the computer to stay on and working forĀ  a while. But other random hardware failures began which made me think the motherboard and memory modules were damaged. An entirely possible scenario considering the dodgy electrical system at the library and the frequency of brownouts and power failures in our area. The decision was made to replace the machine because we just didn’t have any more time to figure it out.*

Buying a new machine, while not overly expensive, would put a dent in our library budget that we didn’t want to spend. So we retrieved an older machine from city surplus. The computer had pretty decent specs with the exception of the OS which was Windows XP. Windows XP is no longer supported by Microsoft and is being deprecated with our Polaris ILS. This means we would have to buy a new version of Windows, or maybe not. With the support of the library director I tested out Ubuntu Linux 14.04LTS, a free operating system which worked like a dream on the machine. Polaris does not officially support a Linux OS, but we did get the machine set up and working. It would have been simpler to buy a new Windows tower, but for the budget conscious, adventurous library, switching to a Linux OS is a great alternative. Linux has come a long way in terms of usability and simplicity. Ubuntu versions of Linux mostly work out of the box. It’s not perfect because there are occasional problems with printers, video graphics, and wireless cards though most problems can be fixed. Ubuntu can be tested on a system prior to installation with the use of a live CD or USB stick. We’re still testing this system but it looks promising.** I could go on about using Linux in the library, but will save that for another time. In any event, the idea should be in our technical tool bag for budget conscious libraries.

What technical problems have you dealt with at your library and how did you fix it?

*I’m of the opinion I can still get the machine back up and working again. So before it gets recycled I’ll be doing some hardware testing. If it truly gets a death sentence, I’ll save the hard drive, DVD drive, and power supply to swap out with other machines.

**It took about 4 hours spread out over a few days to test the Ubuntu system, install it, switch out the old tower, and setup Polaris and the printers.