or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 2/1/15

   February 7th, 2015

3.5 inch driveA patron came up to the desk this week with a 3-1/2" disk, asking for a computer that can read it.

I had to stop and think - I was pretty sure we had a computer somewhere in the building that still had an a: drive, but wasn't positive. I told him I would walk around and check, but then we got into about a ten minute discussion about different storage options - USB flash drives, CD, DVD, SD cards, etc. He seemed really interested in the pros and cons of each, so I told him as much as I knew. He just wanted to store and carry regular files, as far as I could tell, so I was surprised when he decided by the end of the conversation that a micro SD card was his best option. I mean, I'm sure it would work, but I don't associate those and all with handy access to your resume and stuff. Huh.

Anyway, eventually I went on my quest for a computer with a 3-1/2" drive. I looked everywhere, checking every PC in the building - even digging through old donated laptops - but I couldn't find an a: drive anywhere. Nor could I find an external drive that I thought we purchased just for this situation (although I did find some external CD drives).

I felt bad that I let the patron down, but even worse that it was at that moment that I realized that this format really is dead - at least, it's dead to my library.

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11 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 2/1/15”

  1. Michael Sauers Says:

    Maybe the library could find the $30 or so to get a USB 3.5″ drive for when the need arises.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Michael: I agree – and honestly, I thought we had. We still offer other long-tail technology (fax, typewriter, VHS – even pencils!), so there’s no reason not to include this as well. And ideally as a cataloged item so it’ll be findable in the catalog.

  3. Chris Says:

    But then think about it seriously… How much data can you really store these days in 1.44 MB?

  4. Denise Says:

    What I find interesting is that many of the save icons (Microsoft Office for example) are the 3.5″ floppy. Many people don’t realize why the icon looks like this, having never seen one in person.

  5. Wendy Says:

    We have a portable USB 3.5″ drive that we sometimes still use to access old documents past librarians/admins stored on the old 3.5″ disks… Not often but it does happen occasionally… haven’t seen a 5.25″ floppy in eons though – that is dead technology 🙂

  6. The Librarian With No Name Says:


    That’s a fascinating point. I’m going to poll some of my younger library aides and see if they can all identify the icon.

    And now that you mention it, the print icon in our library software is clearly a dot matrix printer with the printed page coming out of the top. Interesting.

  7. Peggy O'Kane Says:

    We call our maker space a Re-maker space because we emphasize converting old media to new. Our portable 3.5 drive is a big hit. We also have vhs/dvd lp/cd scanners of various sizes and formats. Next on the wish list is a reel to reel converter. (We have have a maker bot and the promise of a programmable robot.

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Chris: yeah – like @Peggy and @Wendy said, I think it’s more useful as a bring-yourself-up-to-date conversion tool than something to use regularly.

    @Denise: I’ve been noticing this too – in fact, I’ve had a post in the works about this very phenomena!

    @Wendy: no, I’ve not seen a 5-1/4″ disk in my professional librarian career, but I’m sure someone is still using them (for some reason, NASA comes to mind).

    @The Librarian: I agree – arcane references like this always interest me. Like, “don’t touch that dial” and “dial a phone” and “did you get that on tape?”

    @Peggy: that is a great idea for a makerspace – I like the idea of recycling, and I think it’s a great focus all around.

  9. Jen McCormack Says:

    Even if you had a drive that could read that disc would your computers have the software to read it? I have to admit I’m really curious about what he saved on that disc and whether he ever found a way to retrieve it!

  10. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jen: back when we still had 3.5″ drives (which couldn’t have been more than a couple years ago), it wasn’t a problem. Most people had either text, image, or Word files, which our public workstations could easily handle. When a patron had a Wordperfect or Lotus 1-2-3 or other file format we couldn’t support, I could always find an online converter website that converted it to a format we could work with. That process was never flawless, but patrons didn’t seem to mind reformatting their document if it meant all the content was recovered.

    The bigger problem we had was that we only had about a 50% success rate with the disks themselves. Most of the time the disks had been corrupted somehow, and couldn’t be read. There’s different techniques to restore corrupted disks, but that didn’t always work – and I’d tell patrons that that sort of thing was always a last-ditch effort anyway.

    So, if we could get to the files on the disks, usually we were okay. But the disks themselves, even library staff disks that had just been sitting in a desk drawer for who knows how long, we usually just not readable anymore.

  11. Matthew Says:

    The only thing that ever really bugged me about 3.5″ discs is that people called them ‘floppy’. The 5.25s were floppy, but 3.5s are not.