Michael Barnett: All’s not lost at GW’s computer labs

The Gelman Library basement’s computer lab is more or less silent, save for the relentless hum of its Dells and the back-and-forth chatter among the building’s relentless socialites. But every so often, its tranquility is pierced by someone who’s freaking out because he didn’t realize that files cannot be permanently saved to a library computer.

This is a public service announcement: transfer your stuff upon logging off an on-campus public computer. If you don’t, you might as well have never written that 20-page paper on the Cuban Missile Crisis, because it gets erased upon your logging off.

In my four years as a loyal Gelman computer lab user, I’ve seen 20 or so people realize what I’ve known since I lost a five-page paper freshman year. The emotions experienced by these people are typical of someone dealing with loss. First comes incredulity; then, grief; then, hopeless despair; and finally, resigned acceptance. It’s not pretty.

No one is to blame for students’ ignorance.

Students are forgiven for erroneously thinking that using a personal login to access a public computer allows them to save documents that will load up whenever they enter that login in the future. Administrators rightly expect students to be responsible for securing files, and they have done nothing to suggest that the University’s public computers are linked to a campus-wide network where documents can be permanently stored.

But both sides can take measures to reduce the possibility that hours of hard work will be lost.

First, students: save your stuff, for real. Carry around a floppy disk, CD or jump drive so you can save your work before signing off a computer. Or you can e-mail whatever you do to yourself – my preferred method, though it brings me closer to Colonial Mail’s pitiful storage quota and puts me at risk of losing my work if GW’s e-mail server crashed.

Administrators, to their credit, are examining ways to expand students’ storage options.

“The question is, what’s student services doing to identify ubiquitous, secure network storage for students?” said Bill Mayer, associate University librarian for information technology, who has led many initiatives to enhance GW’s technological security and capabilities. “Is that something the University wants to do?”

“It’s a huge question,” he added.

P.B. Garrett, assistant vice president for academic technology, said the University is looking into the development of systems in which students could access securely stored files from public computers.

But such a welcome technological improvement would, if made, not happen tomorrow. GW can do something today to reduce the risk of file loss: post a few signs.

The library is no stranger to visual alerts. Its floors are littered with large-print placards asking patrons to refrain from talking, drinking and using their laptops in certain areas. Unlike those admonitions, I have a feeling that warnings about not sending documents down a black hole will actually be heeded.

When I broached the possibility of posting such signs around various computer labs, Garrett, whose department runs the Gelman computer labs and others around campus, thought the idea grand.

“We would absolutely do that. It’s a good idea,” said Garrett, who pledged quick implementation of the modest information campaign. “It doesn’t hurt to remind people.”

No, it doesn’t hurt to remind people. What hurts is having to write a bad paper twice.

-The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is Hatchet editor in chief. He feels your loss but is also amused by it.

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