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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/29/09

   April 4th, 2009

submarineWhen I came into work one morning this week, I found the following note left on my desk by my coworkers from the night before:

This patron would like to know what kind of paint was used on US Navy subs between 1976-1979.
[Name & phone number]

Now that's how I like to start off my Wednesdays.

My first thought was that this would be classified information and require a Freedom of Information Act Request, so the first thing I did was find the Navy's FIOA information and request procedures.

I didn't think I'd be able to find this just laying around the internet, but just in case, and to possibly give the patron more leads, I wanted to see what else I could find. The Navy's website had a very easy-to-find Contact Us form, and even though I thought it was a long shot, I told them who I was and what the patron was looking for. I figured if I heard anything back from them, it would be interesting to the patron.

Next it occurred to me that if the Navy has a library, I might get lucky and find a reference librarian who could direct me to a useful resource. I wasn't even sure if the Navy had a library, but a general Google search for "navy library" found that there is in fact a Naval History Library in Washington. But, wouldn't you know it, their reference desk is closed on Wednesdays.

However, that same Google search also turned up the United States Naval Academy Nimitz Library. They were open, and also listed a phone number, so I gave them a call. The phone was answered on the second ring, and when I told the librarian who I was and what I was looking for, she just laughed and said

That's not exactly the kind of information we have here at our fingertips.

However, she took my name and number and said she'd check around. About an hour later she called back with some interesting information (also: I don't know that I've ever spoken to a nicer or more helpful person on the phone - she was wonderful). First she told me that she had found some information in a database called DyNet, but that database was restricted to military personnel. There is also a civilian version of the database called National Technical Information Service.

ntis-logoShe did a search in NTIS for "submarine paint" and found quite a few matches. Unfortunately, it's just a bibliographic database, and the full text reports are only available for purchase from NTIS. I wasn't sure what kind of paint the patron was looking for, so we weren't able to get too far with this, but it looked like it was what the patron needed.

I called the patron back the next day with what I had found, and he was delighted. He said he and his lawyer had been searching online for months and turned up nothing. Then he explained why he was looking for this information: he said that when he was in the Navy, it was common to be sent to a drydock in Spain to sandblast the hulls of subs and then repaint them. He suspected this took place in Spain to avoid OSHA standards and oversight, because now he was developing health issues and is researching the paint to see if there is a connection.

A couple days later I got an email back from the Navy in response to the message I sent in from their website. They said they'd be able to help, but needed to know more specific information, such as what class of submarine, etc, and I forwarded this to the patron to follow up.

For what initially seemed an unanswerable question, I was happy to find the Navy so open and prompt in responding to a civilian request. The other thing that made me happy was that, at no point in course of asking what kind of paint the Navy used did someone say, "why, Navy Blue, of course."

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