Your New BFF: The Flash Drive

| September 3, 2010

People my age take advantage of being part of the digital generation. What comes as second nature to us can be completely foreign to others. At TC, the age demographics are wide ranging (not that age alone determines technological literacy), so I frequently feel caught off guard by some of the questions presented to technical support.

That said, I would like to present a short tutorial on flash-drives. Flash-drives are often the solution to the problems I’m presented with, but unfortunately I’ve faced many blank faces when I’ve brought up the f-word. I would strongly urge library staff to explain the benefits of flash drives when given the opportunity. You’ll be helping our patrons, and in turn, helping the library.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a flash drive at the Gottesman Library. Students and faculty alike, I beg of you—your library experience will greatly improve if you make use of a flash drive.

There are two reoccurring issues that I continuously face in tech support, and they are both a result of how our public computer kiosks are set up: no documents can be saved or downloaded to the hard-drive. The first issue is that a student spends an entire afternoon working on a paper. They then go to save the document to the hard-drive so that they can email it to themselves as an attachment only to discover that they cannot save their work. Similarly, a student will spend hours researching, finding a large batch of articles that they hope to save to the computer and then email to themselves. But again, they are unable to do so. So many hours of labor lost!

You may wonder why we do not allow documents to be saved to our machines. It’s because librarians are evil and we wish to make your academic experience a living hell. Just kidding; we’re actually really nice.

There are three main reasons why we don’t allow documents to be saved or downloaded onto the public kiosk computers: patron privacy protection; safety; and space limitations.

  • Privacy: After saving documents onto the hard drive, students often forget to remove these documents when finished. I remember finding someone’s financial aid document on a computer at a different university. Not good.
  • Safety: Allowing software and document downloads onto our computers would open a can of malware worms that we are, frankly, unequipped to deal with. Allowing saving and downloading onto our machines would leave us completely vulnerable to all sorts of viruses. There would not be enough hours in the day for computer cleanup: the more computers down, the fewer computers available for our patrons.
  • Space: Documents take up space, and available space is finite. Sure, word documents are a drop in the bucket…but movies, music, and PDF files can pile up quickly. Our machines would become quickly overwhelmed if we allowed for document storage.

This is where flash drives come in. Flash drives, also known as USB flash drives or thumb drives, are the 21st century version of a floppy disk. They’re small, portable devices that plug into any USB portal. Flash drives store data, so that files can be moved and viewed from machine to machine. The device itself is rewritable, meaning files can be altered or removed after being transferred onto the drive.

By plugging in a flash drive to any of our computers, you can save your document directly onto your flash drive. Then, you can retrieve the file from your flash drive to attach to an email. However, you may not even need to email the documents if your reason for doing so is to view your files on a different machine. You can simply retrieve your file from the flash drive plugged into your home computer. And actually, I would strongly encourage this method for articles in PDF format: I’ve seen students try to email themselves 10 articles in a single email, only to go home and realize that the email never went through because their email service didn’t have the capacity for such a large attachment.

Flash drives can sell for less than $10. The more storage you need, the more expensive the flash drive. I hope you choose to make the investment.

If for one reason or another, you choose not to purchase a flash drive, or you forget your flash drive, there are other options. If you are working on a paper, I would recommend Google Docs as your word processor. Docs allows free online storage of your document (so long as you have a Google account–which is also free), making the document accessible from any machine with an internet connection. You can later import your documents into other word processors (such as MS Word). Likewise, if an article is available as a full-text HTML file, you can simply copy and paste the text into your email or Google Docs. Keep in mind, most images within an article are left out of the HTML version. If the images are important to your research, you will need the PDF file, which is generally difficult to copy and paste. If you were using a flash drive, you could download the PDF, and then upload it to Google Docs; this would serve as an additional backup to protect your files.

As a general rule, I would recommend writing down or copying and pasting all relevant article citations into an email. This is just good research practice. I can’t tell you how many times I decided not to keep an article only to later realize I would like to use it, and spend days trying to find it again (even library science students make library mistakes). Documenting the citation will allow you to re-find the article later. Some databases have a citation-save tool, keeping track of all articles for you. Other databases will allow you to email the entire article (without having to download it first), but this is not common so I would advise you not to expect this service.

I hope I have convinced you to utilize a flash drive (and Google Docs!). Writing and researching is a stressful activity; you shouldn’t have to worry about document loss. You should also have the flexibility to keep track of multiple documents on multiple machines. If you have any questions, please ask the first floor circulation desk for assistance.

A thought: Perhaps the library should sell flash drives?