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



Reference Question of the Week – 3/22/09

   March 28th, 2009

A patron called in and said:

I was coming back to Chelmsford from Boston, and on the highway I saw a sign that said "Fish Brook." I didn't know there was a Fish Brook in Chelmsford; do you have a list of all the brooks in town?

The only thing I could think of that would have the names of brooks on it was a map of town. I pulled out two that we have in Ready Reference and started reading to her all the names of the brooks, streams and rivers. This was a problem for two reasons:

  1. When I read a name the patron was unfamiliar with, she insisted I describe where in town the brook started and ended. It turns out that this is very difficult to do, and proves that a picture really is worth a thousand words (or at least a good five minutes)
  2. Some of the streams had different names on the different maps. This didn't seem too unusual to me for New England, but the patron would not accept it - she wanted only the official names

I told her I'd find out what the official names were and I'd call her back. But after I thought about it for a few minutes, I realized I had no idea how the official names were decided. I'm sure the names originally came from the early settlers and later residents, but if something had more than one name (or more than one spelling), I thought there would have to be a single official name for everything (for example, there is a pond in town called both Heart Pond [because it is shaped like a heart] and Hart Pond [because the Hart family owned it long ago]).

I emailed a member of the Town's Conservation Commission, thinking they would know all about the natural features of town, and the process by which a name becomes official. The response was prompt, but a little surprising:

...It is pretty much rule of thumb that the USGS map will have the most accurate information. I would guess that the names were created by the original settlers and referenced on the very first maps of the town...

...from my experience streams, ponds and lakes are often named unofficially by local residents through common usage over the years. And those names may or may not end up on a map. Rivers may also be named in a similar way but since they cross municipal boundaries the names more than likely come from the state level. However, locally the town officials may officially name a body of water. For example the Board of Selectman renamed Chrystal Lake, Freeman Lake in honor of one of our former State Representatives, Bruce Freeman back in the '70's I believe...

The email had the USGS map of Chelmsford attached, which I emailed to the patron. I didn't hear back, so hope that means she got her answer - but none of the maps I used showed a "Fish Brook" in Chelmsford. In fact, they didn't show water of any kind where she described seeing the sign.

And I guess that email answers my question - I just thought there would be more paperwork involved. It looks like the only time there's any kind of official name is when local politicians want to make history by changing the historical name to honor someone.

Otherwise, what something is called is just what it's always been called - even if that is more than one thing (incidentally, Freeman Lake is also known as Newfield Pond).




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3 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/22/09”

  1. Mary Jo Says:

    Okay, I am supposed to be studying, and instead I am reading my RSS feeds and procrastinating. There is an old map from 1891 at this link http://www.wardmaps.com/viewasset.php?aid=5949# that shows a Fish Brook coming out of the top of Haggetts Pond. You can zoom in and scroll around the map… it is in the upper right quarter of the map right above the ‘N’ in ANDOVER. Pretty cool map.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    That is a great map – thank you. And the Fish Brook you found, although not in Chelmsford, is probably the one the patron saw from the highway. I kind of didn’t want to tell her she must have seen the sign somewhere else, so having this map to point to will help.

  3. jessamyn Says:

    Check out the Libre Maps project if you wind up needing USGS maps in the future. They’re all online for free but not very well publicized.