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

Reference Question of the Week – 7/15/12

   July 21st, 2012

Tornado Shelter signThis was kind of a fun question. Earlier this week, we received the following email message from a patron:

I have been referred to you by Town Hall. I am hoping to find some archived material relating to the tornado that hit Chelmsford on 21 July 1972. I am quite interested in learning more about the precise path the tornado took through town, the response by the town, and, since I am a meteorologist, more about the weather situation on that day.

This was actually the first time I'd ever heard of this tornado. I knew we wouldn't have any books or anything on such a local phenomena for this time period, so the first place I looked for information was the library's secret weapon, the Vertical File.

A few years ago, staff indexed our vertical file into an Excel spreadsheet, so doing a word search for "tornado" was a snap - and produced these two news clippings:

  • Tornado hits town; Chelmsford Newsweekly, 7/27/1972; article; photographs
  • Tornado strikes Chelmsford; Chelmsford Sentinel, 7/26/1972; article

We also have the entire newspaper from this time on microfilm, which might also contain additional information.

Of course, both of these resources require the patron to come into the library. The Town of Chelmsford's Annual Reports are available online (thanks to the Boston Public Library and the Internet Archive), and searching the 1972 annual report for "tornado" turned up a few matches concerning the Town's response and the overall cost.

I wasn't sure if NOAA would have any information on this storm, but a general web search found http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com, and their entry for this storm gives a very general storm track (zoom out one level).

I emailed all this to the patron, who was very appreciative. He had actually already found some NOAA/NWS information, and sent me the link to the storm summary [pdf, page 9] from the National Climatic Data Center's Storm Data and Unusual Phenomena data files:

1972 tornado summary

This is now one of my favorite reference questions, because:

  • I was able to provide the patron with helpful information
  • I got to answer it using both new and traditional library resources
  • Useful resources were located quickly using a finding aide developed by library staff
  • I got to share a new library resource (online annual reports) with a patron, who may use it again in the future
  • I learned something about the history of my community
  • The patron participated in the search, even sharing his findings with me
  • I learned of a new and useful weather resource from the patron
  • I was able to add to our Vertical File the information the patron shared with me, thus improving our own resources
  • The timing was so perfect that I get to post this question on the 40th anniversary of the tornado

All good stuff. The patron said he'd be into the library soon to take a look at the news clippings, and I'll be ready and waiting with the Vertical File when he comes.

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4 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 7/15/12”

  1. Jessie Says:

    Your post reminded me of how intimidated I am by the vertical file I’ve inherited. I’m a brand-new reference librarian in a small library whose institutional knowledge (at least in reference) left with my predecessor. Do you have any tips, or ideas for places I could find more advice on organizing and managing these sorts of “unofficially held” items in a reference collection?

  2. Peggy Says:

    I love this kind of question and the way that you answered it. We keep being told the new librarianship is about making information and resources about our local communities available to the world: as if this were an entirely new thing. Traditional resources like vertical files and the local newspaper microfilm combined with ways we have re-imagined these sources is, I believe, the real answer.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jessie: I know what you mean. Going through the process of creating an index might help – it’ll force to get to know what’s there, but also give you the chance to weed, update, and reorganize it so it’s easier for you to use. Here’s what we did [xls]

    @Peggy: thanks, and I agree. I recentlyish gave a talk entitled “Reduce Reuse Recycle” about how we can take valuable resources we already have (like vertical file, microfilm, indices, etc) and make them available in new ways to give them new life and keep library resources current with patron needs. No new content, just new avenues to explore what libraries have been doing for a long time.

  4. Jenne Says:

    Great job! I love how you use this blog to help others become better at answering patron questions. I like how you didn’t stop at just the newspaper accounts of the tornado and you kept digging for more.