Using a USB drive at the library

A while back Randy Seaver’s blog included instructions for using a USB (aka “thumb”) drive for collecting microfilm images from the LDS Family History Center’s computers. The tip also comes in handy when you’re using the computers at your public library to access databases that the library subscribes to. My library, for example, has an institutional subscription to the New England Historic Genealogical Society’s site, among others. I was able to get copies of a number of BMD records from the NEHGS Massachusetts Vital records databases using the library’s PC and my USB drive.

I ran into some problems on one of the library’s computers, however, when I was unable to view some of the NEHGS records, which were stored in “MrSID” files. MrSID is a fairly obscure file format that is used mainly for cartographic information. It’s big advantage is that it allows you to view portions of an image in great detail without having to download the entire image. This was especially valuable back in the days of dialup Internet access. The drawback is that you need to have a plugin installed to view the files. For whatever reason, the PC I was using at the library didn’t have the correct plugin. USB drive to the rescue!

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article entitled “Ten Things Your IT Department Won’t Tell You“, which had a bunch of suggestions for dealing with some of the restrictions IT places on office PCs. One of the best tips involved installing small, portable versions of various essential programs on a USB drive, and linked to a collection of such apps at

I’d installed the Portable Firefox web browser on the USB drive I was using at the library, so I started it up and pasted the problem url into it: bingo! Firefox was able to easily download the file, and I used the Irfanview graphics program to view it. (The institutional subscription sites control access based on the domain or IP address that you’re browsing from, not the browser, so the NEHGS site had no problem letting me in using Firefox). Irfanview is free- it does require a plugin to view MrSID files, but that’s also free. Once you’ve opened the image in Irfanview, you can save it as a .jpg file for easier access in the future.

Aside from dealing with problem file formats and balky browsers, there are a couple of other reasons for installing portable apps:

  • Your browser bookmarks are available
  • Portable versions of word processing and spreadsheet apps allow you to cut and paste information directly into your documents
  • You can use a portable graphics program to enhance hard to read scanned documents while you’re still at the library, rather than waiting until you get home to discover that an item wasn’t what you thought it was
  • Portable Apps’ Virtual Magnifying Glass program lets you zoom in on sections of the display
  • If you need more space to store all the stuff you find, a Zip utility on your USB drive may save the day
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