It took almost two whole working days, but the most troublesome of the public desktop computers is whole, minus a functioning DVD drive. But that can wait; very few patrons use it, and I have an external USB drive on order in case someone does need it.
The computer is an IBM Lenovo, and it comes with an impressive suite of tools for diagnosing and recovering from problems, including a refresh function that clears the hard drive and reinstalls the operating system as it was when you first took the machine out of the box. It also comes with several levels of security and passwords, far more appropriate for a 100-computer enterprise installation than for a small public library. One of the passwords had been set, and I couldn't get past it to get to the refresh function. Over the years that the machine has been in service, it had acquired a lot of ...shall we say... quirks, and it had finally reached the point of being essentially unusable.
It took me all of Tuesday to figure out how to bypass or disable the password protection that was preventing me from initiating the refresh function, and it turned out to be relatively simple and obvious: uninstall and reinstall the program that uses the password. But first I made a set of six recovery CDs from another, identical machine, thinking that I would take them to the sick machine, boot off of them, and refresh Windows XP from the CDs, only to find out that the DVD/CD drive on the sick machine was no longer responsive. I know it used to work, because several months ago I had booted the same machine from a LiveCD for Ubuntu 9.04, and it ran like that for several days before one patron absolutely had to use MS Word.
In retrospect, even if the DVD drive were working, I probably would have found that the recovery CDs only worked in the machine that they were made on. So in the end, I reinstalled the password-protected program from a flash drive, and finally brought the machine back to its pristine "out of the box" condition. After many updates and reboots, it was back to XP Service Pack 3. And that was the end of Tuesday.
On Wednesday morning the machine was ready to be set up with our standard configuration of applications, printer drivers, and anti-virus programs, all of which are delivered on CD. And the optical drive wasn't working. I have a 4GB flash drive, so I copied the contents of each of the install CDs to separate folders on my flash drive and found, much to my surprise, the applications installed from the flash drive just as easily as they would have off the CDs, and probably much faster, even the installs that required a key. So my next question is, why don't vendors offer to deliver applications on flash drives? No CD or DVD to scratch, or break, or get dirty. It seems like the perfect delivery medium. Better still, let me download it from your website in a format that can go onto a flash drive, instead of making me burn a CD.
Many thanks to http://www.bleepingcomputer.com, http://forums.lenovo.com/, and http://www-307.ibm.com/. The Lenovo and IBM websites tend to be a little dense, with long convoluted troubleshooting paths and nested dependencies, but no more so than Microsoft's online help. Bleeping Computer is an invaluable free resource, and many thanks to Bob, who told me about it when I first got into the computer technician game.