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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/18/15

   October 24th, 2015 Brian Herzog

chelmsford ginger ale signHere's an email reference interaction that took place over the course of a few days this week - it had its ups and downs, but ultimately ended up being surprisingly positive.

Everything started with me getting this email from a patron (slightly edited for privacy):

I am a student at [university nearby] and I am doing my community project on Chelmsford. I was just wondering if you could give me some good information on the history of Chelmsford for my paper. I would appreciate it greatly if you could email me back or call me. Thank you so much!!

My first reaction was that this sounds like a neat project, but such a vague question that I wasn't sure how to answer it. Chelmsford was founded in 1655, and of course people lived here before that too, so it's got a long history.

So, I emailed her back with links to some history resources on the library's website and another history website we maintain. I also said that since it was so broad, to please let me know if she had more specific questions.

The next day I get this:

Thank you so much for all the help. I was just wondering if you could just answer some questions for me so I could include you in my paper?

The questions are
1. What is the most important historic event that happened in chelmsford?
2. What historic importance does chelmsford has to Massachusetts?
3. What is the most well know historic event or aspect of chelmsford?

Again thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it!!

Okay, red flag: this is what I'm always afraid of with homework help. Not, "can you help me with my homework," but instead, "can you answer my exact homework questions for me?" That sucks.

But also, these questions didn't exactly bring laser focus to what she was asking - not to mention that these questions are entirely subjective, since Chelmsford doesn't have a, "and then the UFO crashed here releasing poisonous gas killing all the cats in town" type event.

So after thinking about it a bit, and talking to coworkers (and facing a week full of non-stop meetings), I decided to ask the rest of the Reference staff to compile a list interesting things from Chelmsford's history. Then I could send that back to this patron, and it'll be up to her to both decide which are the most significant, and then to do further research (although honestly, the skeptic in me was fully expecting her next email to be, "oh, can you send me more information on event X?").

Anyway, this turned out to be the the really fun part of this question, and actually is the reason I'm sharing it here. For being a small, quiet town, Chelmsford has had an interesting history (and this is just what we came up with in a few hours of brainstorming):

  • The first European settlers in the area is significant, as is the date of incorporation as a Town in the Massachusetts Colony
  • The town of Chelmsford used to include the areas of Lowell and Westford, but in the mid 1800s these areas became their own distinct municipalities. However, this area is well-known for being significant during the industrial revolution in the Northeast in the early to mid-19th century - many of the structures that housed the people working in the mills were within Chelmsford's limits
  • Many people come in to research the Chelmsford Ginger Ale Company and bottling plant, which has changed hands a few times and is now owned by Coca-Cola. People also research the Chelmsford Foundry, which made products from many of the natural resources found in the area such as iron ore and limestone
  • The granite that formed the columns around Faneuil Hall, as well as other major government and ceremonial structures, was sourced and carved in Chelmsford by Fletcher Granite, a company established in 1880 by Herbert E. Fletcher
  • The Chelmsford Glass works, an "important New England manufacturer of assorted plate glass and assorted glass products" was established on the East bank of the Merrimack river (then Chelmsford) in 1802
  • Christopher Roby created the Chelmsford sword for soldiers during the Civil War, when he transitioned his work force, which previously manufactured scythes and skates, to the manufacture of the weapons during the war between 1861 and 1865, producing 32,200 cavalry sabers
  • In the 1960s the opening of I-495 and the interchange with Route 3 had a huge impact on Chelmsford, doubling the population and changing the character of the town from a small rural location to a much, much larger suburban center
  • In 1911, a train carrying Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, on its way to a performance in Lowell, derailed in Chelmsford. The train was carrying lost of animals, many of which escaped from the wrecked cars and had to be rounded up from the vicinity by cowboys. Since the train could not continue, the entire company, animals and all, walked through the streets of Chelmsford to Lowell to continue with the show
  • There have also been significant weather events in Chelmsford - the of blizzard 1978, floods, and lightning strikes
  • Chelmsford resident Joseph Spalding, who died in 1820 and is buried in Forefather's Cemetery, fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill (indicated by the engraving on his tombstone)
  • The original portion of the Library is the model for Springfield Town Hall on The Simpsons, because one of the show's artists, Lance Wilder, is from Chelmsford

Maybe I am jaded, but I was absolutely not expecting this to be the patron's reply:

Thank you so much for this! All your answers are wonderful and will be extremely helpful for my paper. I appreciate you taking time out of your day for helping me. Thank your colleagues for me too!!

Huh. So that's great - we got to work on a fun question, and it looks like the patron took the information and ran with the research. Yay for a library win-win.

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History In Job Titles

   July 22nd, 2015 Brian Herzog

I was looking at some old Town of Chelmsford annual reports recently, to research the opening of one of the High School buildings in town. Just by chance, I came across a page that stood out to me (for obvious reasons):

1917 job titles

Chelmsford was a much more agricultural community in 1917, so it makes sense that moths could be a big deal, and that the town would have someone inspecting slaughterhouses. But they still made me laugh, and double-check if these positions are still on the Town payroll (they didn't seem to be). History is fun.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/15/15

   March 21st, 2015 Brian Herzog

artwalklogo175I had to wait to post this one until the event had passed, because I didn't want to skew the results. And also as a caveat emptor right up front, this might be one of those "you had to be there" moments, because the set up is long so the punch line may be anti-climatic. But it's the second day of Spring and it's snowing again, so here we go anyway.

Every year since 1993, Chelmsford has had a town-wide Winterfest celebration during February. That's fun. A couple years ago, the organizers also started an ArtWalk - artists created work around the same theme, and these were displayed in business' front windows in the town center. This gave people another reason to be outside and walk around Town, and also drew people to the shops.

This year, an element of competition was added - people could cast votes for their favorite display.

I was asked to help figure out a way to allow online voting for the ArtWalk displays. SurveyMonkey seemed easiest, so the organizers took photos of the displays, I added them to a poll, and we promoted the URL around town so people could vote (this, by the way, is why I waited on this post - I wanted the voting closed so that spambots wouldn't link from here and ruin the poll).

Okay, so there's the set up. The displays were going up on Saturday, February 7th, and the voting would open on Sunday the 8th. And of course, we were promoting the ArtWalk beforehand, and I think some of the artists had been talking it up too.

So now the punchline (I wanted to warn you it was coming so you didn't miss it): on the Wednesday before, an older gentleman came up to me at the desk and said,

I'd like to cast my vote for the Winterfest artwork. I saw the one I liked. Do I do that here?

I was a little puzzled, and told him that no, voting doesn't start until Sunday, and the displays themselves don't go up until Saturday. To which he replied,

Oh, I don't know anything about it. My wife just told me to come down here and vote for hers.

Ha. See, that was totally worth it. As a reward, take a look at the 2015 Chelmsford Winterfest ArtWalk displays. The photos don't really do them justice, but it's a fun program anyway.

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Check Out This Telescope!

   October 23rd, 2014 Brian Herzog

I totally dropped the ball and am late in posting this. However, my library was featured in the October issue of Sky & Telescope magazine!

telescope check out

The article focused on a practical program for circulating telescopes from a public library. Thanks to the generous donation from local astronomy buffs, we've been circulating two telescopes for about the last six month.

telescopeThe photo above appeared in the article, showing library staff checking out a telescope to patrons. The article goes into detail about the best telescopes for library use (that is, easy-to-use and hard-to-damage), how to prepare them, and what to circulate with them to make it a good experience.

If you're interested in expanding your non-traditional collection to include telescopes, definitely read this article. Unfortunately the article isn't available free online, so if you don't subscribe it should be in both EBSCO's MasterFILE and Gale's OneFile databases. Or talk to me about an ILL request.

And one last note: there has been a double-digit waiting list on our telescopes ever since we started offering them. I neglected to sign up right away, and now have been waiting four months for it to be my turn.

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Chelmsford Gets a StoryWalk

   July 24th, 2013 Brian Herzog

My library has partnered with the Chelmsford Open Space Stewards to create a StoryWalk along one of our local trails.

The idea of StoryWalk, which originated with Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT, is to line a trail with pages from a picture book, which kids (and adults) can read while on their walk/hike. The pages are laminated so as to be weather-proof, and attached to wooden stakes driven into the ground along the trail.

It's a very simple project to do, but looks great and is a lot of fun for trail walkers. Library staff prepared all the pages and stakes, and the volunteer Stewards cleared the trail and installed the stakes - here's a slideshow of the installation and trail:

The StoryWalk was put in last weekend, and the "ribbon cutting" ceremony officially announcing the trail is this Saturday. The plan is to swap out a new story each season, and if all goes well hopefully start a monthly rotation.

The first four books were purchased by the Friends of the Library, who also paid for the lamination (all the wood and other materials were donated). For the future, we're hoping to get a local hardware store and office supply store to donate the wood and lamination services, too.

The first story chosen was Sheep Take a Hike, by Nancy Shaw and illustrated by Margot Apple. It's a perfect story for the natural trail selected (Sunny Meadow in South Chelmsford), and subsequent stories will also be seasonal - something in the snow for winter, etc. I like this project a lot because it's one of those great outside-the-library ideas that bring literacy and fun to where our patrons already are. Plus, it's easy!

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/14/13

   July 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Removed pay phonesI've talked about pay phones before, but I like them - and we do still get asked about them - so here's the latest pay phone question.

This week, a man came to the Reference Desk asking if we knew where any pay phones were. The phones in the shopping plaza across the street were removed earlier this year, which were the last pay phones in town I knew of.

Since the pay phone was removed from our lobby, our policy has been to let people use desk phones. I offered this to the patron, but he declined because it was going to be a long call to Worcester, MA (which would also be a long distance call). He said he preferred a pay phone, so my coworker and I and the patron brainstormed where one might be.

We thought of all the high-traffic retail centers, but couldn't definitely remember seeing one anywhere. Eventually the patron thanked us, and just sort of wandered away.

This bothered me, so that night after work, I went grocery shopping. My grocery store is in a big shopping plaza*, and I drove around slowly really looking for a pay phone. And, success! I found one right outside the entrance to Wal-Mart:

Wal-Mart pay phone

At the library the next day, I relayed my find to my coworker, and also the patron who came in later. We thought this could very well be the last pay phone in town, and thought the only way to be sure was to drive around trying to spot them. Not being a digital native, you see, it took awhile before I realized that this is why Facebook was invented.

I asked on the Library's Facebook page if anyone knew where there were pay phones in town, and immediately got some responses:

Facebook pay phone post

Great! Crowd-sourcing Reference Questions is kind of fun - and certainly provided a better answer than I did for the patron. This might even motivate me to create a Custom Google Map of local pay phone locations - it would be a challenge to maintain, but there certainly is no other resource for this question.


*This plaza just got a Five Guys!

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