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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jconnolly@nsl.org, Assistant Editor

Winter, 2002
Volume 48, Number 4

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Attack of the Virus: A Library Survival Guide

by Edwin S. Clay, III

Several years ago, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke judged a "What Were HAL's first words?" competition. The contest title refers to the rebellious and homicidal computer in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on a Clarke short story. This was the winning entry: "Good morning, doctors. I have taken the liberty of removing Windows 95 from my hard drive."

Even a parody of Clarke's vision of technology run amok seems too close for comfort when discussing the rogue Nimda computer program that threatened Fairfax County government's computers last fall and, by default, the library's 1,000-plus devices. The Nimda ("admin" spelled backwards) attacker (with the characteristics of both a computer virus and worm) was unique because of the multiple ways it could spread. Users could catch the virus by opening or previewing their e-mail, sharing programs on a network, or exchanging information on a Web site. In two days last fall, Nimda spread around the world, hitting up to 100,000 servers, as well as countless desktop systems and internal networks. When infected, a computer could be tied up with useless programs, affecting its ability to perform. It was also vulnerable to attack from hackers who could read, add, or delete files of private information on the hard drive.

Because it might be difficult to contain any spread of the virus once it occurred, the County's Department of Information Technology (DIT) decided to take a cautious approach. It pulled the plug to the Internet while it individually scanned all devices and cleaned any infected ones. The Department quickly set up a virus command center with 150 technicians working around the clock, but checking out each of the county's 9,000-plus computers could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on its software. Given these circumstances, the Fairfax County Public Library staff prepared for life without its staff and public computers, which are integrated into the county's network.

Lessons Learned

Losing our Internet connection for an extended period of time was a wake-up call-a reminder of what we knew intrinsically but had not really experienced to this extent-our dependence and the dependence of our patrons on information technology. Luck, staff initiative, and the patience of our users helped us through the crisis. Once we could catch our breath, we sat down with DIT staff to discuss technological issues, such as standardizing our operating systems (a mix of Windows 95, 98, NT and 2000) and segregating our public terminals on a separate server, which could make dealing with the next virus a bit easier.

Luck was with us because Nimda did not threaten our circulation system. Our legacy Inlex system, which we have since replaced, operated on a Hewlett-Packard platform. Nimda threatened only Microsoft-based systems. A more difficult problem was the potential loss of communication. With no e-mail, staff needed to devise other means to stay in touch with one other and with DIT staff, who were attempting patches and other fixes that needed to be uploaded on a daily basis. FAX and phone messages became standard with staff members at each branch assigned to monitor the FAX machine for messages.

E-Team and Staff Heroics

For a number of years now, the Library has convened monthly meetings of an e-team, comprising an electronics specialist from each of our 21 branches, as well as staff from the library's Internet Services Department and the county's DIT. With such a structure already in place, communication in an emergency was easier than it might have been. "Having a trained electronics specialist was a comfort to staff," said Marilyn Zauner, assistant branch manager at the George Mason Regional Library at the time. "When DIT called, we had someone who could speak their language. Rather than having everyone involved in writing procedures and interpreting messages, we deferred to our electronic specialist or to the head of the information department, who communicated to the rest of the staff." A staff member at the Chantilly Regional Library, which has more than 20 public computer terminals, agreed that a daily plan coordinated by one individual was necessary. "The whole staff worked together," said Sheila Barry. "Since we were directed to do things daily to each public PC, as well as staff ones, it became imperative that we work from a master plan. With each new directive we first charted out how it would be accomplished. At Chantilly we usually made a chart or checklist before gathering up staff to assist. Then we fanned out and within 10 minutes we were done." In some cases, when an electronic specialist was not on duty at a branch, another branch would share its resource, sending its own specialist for an on-site visit. Staff members who were computer savvy, but not designated electronic specialists, also pitched in. Nine such staff members were later awarded an Internal Recognition Award for their outstanding service in response to the Nimda crisis. Their citation read in part: "During a constantly changing situation, with instructions arriving several times a day, including weekends, they responded promptly to get locations up and running, alert DIT staff to what needed to be done technically, keep branch staff informed, and sometimes support other branches."

Public Service

Communicating with the public was as essential as staff communication. Internet service was completely interrupted for a week with intermittent problems, particularly with our online databases, continuing for another several weeks. Signage on the front door of each branch and at our Internet sign-up stations helped keep the public informed of what was and was not available. In general though, patrons were quite patient. "I was surprised at how understanding our patrons were," said Christine Jones, an electronic specialist at the Pohick Regional Library. "Most of the patrons in Pohick's service area are very computer-savvy, and I think they could imagine the same thing happening at their offices. They were frustrated that the equipment was down, but they understood that it was out of our control." On the other hand, some patrons thought that because we didn't have computers, we couldn't offer service. "People see technology as replacing librarians instead of being a tool librarians use to provide patron assistance," said another staff member, who reminded a patron that even though the catalog was unavailable, staff at the information desk could help. "Next time we'll change the signage on our door," she added. "It will read 'Computers are not working. Information services and check-out are still available.'" For many staff of a certain age, the crisis was an opportunity to flex research skills that had lain dormant for awhile. "Having absolutely no computers for a time and no Internet for an even longer time was a fun challenge for professional librarians with 'traditional' training," said Jerilyn Polson, assistant branch manager at the Centreville Regional Library. "We utilized tried and true print sources and the telephone, just like they taught us in library school."

Remote users were also affected. The library's Web site experiences almost two million visits a year. When the Internet connection was finally re-established, we heard from our users. They had missed us and were extremely pleased we were back. It became clear that we have raised expectations. Patrons like the convenience of accessing our catalog, renewing books, placing holds, and all the other library transactions that can be done online.

Collection Management, Acquisitions and Cataloguing

In addition to branches, other library departments were impacted by the Nimda virus threat. In our Collection Management and Acquisitions Department, all our bibliographic and review sources are databases we access via the Internet-whether Books In Print, vendor databases like Ingram's iPage and Brodart's bibz.com, subscription databases like Ebscohost for reviews, or commercial sites like amazon.com or barnes&noble.com. "Without these resources, selection was more difficult and less efficient," said Julie Pringle, Coordinator of Collection Management and Acquisitions. "However, we were lucky that Inlex was not affected by the virus and so we could check to see what we owned and decide what we wanted to select for the collection if we had paper lists, bibliographies, or reviews in newspapers." Because the county's corporate systems are on unaffected Microsoft platforms, acquisitions and cataloging had fewer problems. The acquisitions portion of the library catalog was also operating, and cataloging could still use our Inlex system. Rush titles had to be cataloged originally since the Internet was unavailable, and usual sources, such as WorldCat, couldn't be accessed. In some cases, catalogers accessed Internet sources from home, bypassing the county's servers.

Information Technology Issues

After the crisis ended, we sat down with DIT staff to learn what changes we would like to make to streamline the troubleshooting process. The need for standardization of desktop operating systems and the ability to remotely access computers so that IT staff does not have to visit each site to perform fixes were the two technological lessons that both the library and county DIT staff took away from the crisis. "I've seen that the county is making great strides to standardize the desktops across the enterprise," says Maryanne Gearhart, Associate Director for Public Services Support. As of May 2002, all library PCs are Windows 2000. During the Nimda crisis, some were Windows 95, and others Windows 2000, making fixes harder to perform. The county is well into the process of installing SMS software that allows DIT staff to remotely manage PCs. DIT has also established separate Norton Antivirus servers that "push out" updated virus definitions and schedule scans centrally to all County PCs, giving the department more control over the library's computers.

Crossing the Divide

Issac Asimov once said, "I do not fear computers; I fear the lack of them." Perhaps that is what the Nimda threat taught us most. As librarians and early adapters to information technology, we have crossed the divide. We can't go back. Information technology is now an integral part of our profession. As we did for several weeks last fall, we must learn to live with technology's weaknesses, as well as its strengths, and continue to adapt. It seems to be what we, as library professionals, do best.

Patricia Bangs, a staff writer with the Fairfax County Public Library's Public Information Office, assisted in the research and writing of this article.


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