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


Reference Question of the Week – 6/23/13

   June 29th, 2013 Brian Herzog

darthvaderaskWhile alone at the desk one evening this week, things got very busy - patrons lining up, the printer jamming, and every time I went into the stacks I could hear the phone ringing. I knew I missed quite a few phone calls, so I was glad to answer it in a brief break between in-person patrons - until I heard the question:

Can you find me Luke Skywalker's family tree? And Han Solo too? Because they're related.

Talk about feeling exasperated. This immediately felt like one of those "photograph of Jesus" kind of questions, and because things were so busy I almost told him I'd need to just take his phone number and I'd look for it when I had time.

However, I had an internet search tab open, so I just typed "luke skywalker genealogy" in and holy smokes one of the first image results was exactly it:

Skywalker family tree

click to view larger

About a half hour later the patron came in to get it printed out. I formatted it to print on legal size paper, and he was happy because now he could hang it up on his wall like a poster.

While he was here, we also looked at a family tree with pictures too:

Skywalker family tree with pictures

click to view larger

But he didn't like it because he preferred a picture of Darth Vader to young Anakin. Sorry, Hayden Christensen.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/2/12

   September 8th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Library events calendarI only heard about this third-hand, but I still found it funny.

A patron walked up to one of our male circulation desk assistants with a copy of the library's event calendar in hand. She pointed to an event on one of the days and asked,

How does this gynecology program work? Does a doctor come in and give people free exams?

Confused (because we have never offered free gynecological exams [and I can't imagine a public library ever doing that]), he looked at the calendar and replied,

Oh, no, that's our Genealogy Group.

Not quite the same thing. A very simple misunderstanding, but I am easily amused.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/17/10

   January 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

B-17I thought this question was interesting for three reasons:

  1. The question is unusual
  2. I hardly played a role at all in answering it
  3. Despite #2, the patron got an excellent answer

Here's what happened: an email came to the reference desk from someone in the Netherlands, who is writing a book on the Allied pilots who took part in the air war over his country during WWII. In his book, he wants to focus on the lives of the men as people, instead of them as soldiers, and so is trying to track down things like what they did before the war, who their wives/girlfriends were, what growing up was like for them, etc.

Through his research in identifying and tracing the crews of planes shot down in his area, he found that one of the men was a Chelmsford resident. He sent me the man's name and date of death, and asked us to find out whatever we could about his life before the war.

This sounded like an impossible question, especially since we don't have the staff to research something like this. However, I forwarded it to the local genealogy club (with the patron's permission), as they often have volunteers who are willing to work on projects like this.

Within a day, a genealogy club volunteer located an obituary for a descendant of the Chelmsford WWII flier (which mentioned the deceased WWII flier by name), and the obituary also listed the names of living relatives. The volunteer looked up the relatives in the phone book, contacted them, explained about the book the man from the Netherlands was working on, and gave them his contact information. They said they'd be delighted to provide information for him, and would contact him as soon as they organized some photos and other information.

How great is that? I hope the author has this much success in locating information on the other airmen in his book, and I'm happy that there are other organizations in town I can rely on to pick up where the library leaves off.

This is another example of the reference librarian's motto: "you don't have to know the answer to every question, you just have to know where to find the answers."



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Free Access to Ancestry.com’s Military Resources

   November 12th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Ancestry.com logoIn honor of Veterans Day, Ancestry.com is offering free access to all of its US Military resources through Friday, Nov. 13th.

An AP story also says that Ancestry has added some new resources, including

...more than 600 Navy cruise books...[which] include the names and photos of those who served on ships...one book - a 1946 edition for the U.S.S. Pennsylvania - includes a photo of TV legend Johnny Carson.

Great idea, Ancestry - thank you. And if I may suggest another great idea: offer libraries remote access at an affordable price.

via LibraryStuff



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/10/09

   May 16th, 2009 Brian Herzog

My goal for these weekly reference questions is to show something useful or interesting. This week's just show how exasperating reference can be.

max bill artworkA patron comes to the desk as says,

I have a painting that I think is by Max Bill. These suckers go for $300,000, so I want to compare the signature on it to his signature on the internet so I can unload it.

Okay, that seems reasonable. And after about ten minutes of searching, we had found some signed artwork [pdf]. But none of the signatures match the one on the patron's painting, and we couldn't find any record of the title of the patron's painting.

At this point I would have concluded it must not be an authentic painting, or that he'd need to contact a professional to make the determination. But the patron insisted on continuing, as he really, really wanted to find a matching signature.

After another 20 minutes with no results, I told him I had to help other patrons (a woman had just walked up behind him - no one else had come to the desk during this half hour). We looked up the number of a couple art appraisers, and I took his name and number in case I was able to find anything else.

Lincoln family treeHe walks away, and the woman steps up and says,

I want to know the genealogy of Abraham Lincoln.

Huh. Well, this seemed to rule out biographies, and nothing else in our catalog looked applicable, so I tried the internet.

Pretty quickly we found Lincon's ancestry on Genealogy.com, which traces Lincoln's ancestors back thirteen generations. We looked at a couple generations, then the patron says,

No, no, I want it to go the other way. I want to prove that I'm related to him, because my grandmother says we are, and she's never wrong.

Oh, well, that's something entirely different. I search for lincoln descendants, and found a few websites that said there are no living descendants of Lincoln.

This of course doesn't rule out that she is related to him in some way, but probably not a blood-line direct descendant. She had that look in her eye like she was going to ask me to prepare her entire family genealogy for her to connect her family to Lincoln's, but other patrons were waiting so I had to cut it short. She checked out a couple of his biographies, and was going to go talk to her grandmother.

Sigh. I never like giving people bad news, but trying to answer a question by continually searching for information that might not exist is tough. Still, I enjoyed looking at the Max Bill art, and that was good Lincoln trivia I hadn't known.



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You Know You’re A Genealogist If…

   December 9th, 2008 Brian Herzog

genealogy booksOne of the publications that gets mailed to my library is aROUNDtheTABLE, the newsletter of The Genealogy Roundtable in Concord, MA.

In addition to success stories from peoples' family research, it also often has tips on things like scanning black and white negatives, how photos can be used for research, etc. This issue also had some humorous columns - here are some excerpts which made me laugh on a Tuesday afternoon:

You know you're addicted to Genealogy...

  • ...when you brake for libraries
  • ...if you get locked in a library overnight and you never even notice

Top ten worst ways to begin a family history:

  • #8 - "Cal me Ishmael," our ancestor Ishmael Johnson might have said if you asked, "What should we call you?"
  • #6 - Let me start by saying this book would have been better if my g'damn relatives had answered my g'damn questions.
  • #1 - In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Several years later, my grandmother was born in Des Moines.

Ah, humor makes any periodical more interesting.

And speaking of genealogy, I attended a great genealogy session at the annual NELA conference. Given by Cindy O’Neil of the Manchester (NH) City Library, it outlined the resources needed for a genealogy core collection (for New England), and is worth skimming.



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