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 Brian Herzog

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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Historical Photo Collection Survey Results

   September 30th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Historical postcard of the Chelmsford LibraryThanks to everyone who completed the historical photo collection survey. The Nashua Library got answers about 13 different collections, which will help them create their own collection policy.

Kersten Matera from the Nashua Library was kind of enough to compile and summarize the results (below) - a PDF of the full results and individual answers [156KB] is also available.

I was particularly interested in seeing what kind of fees libraries are charging for digital copies of their images collections. To this I asked the question: If the public wants a high-resolution digital copy of an image, will you provide that to them?

  • 42% of libraries do not offer high-resolution copies
  • 33% offer copies for free
  • 25% charge a fee (e.g. $10, $20, $24)

Interesting to note that a call in to Kinko's furnished me with their scanning prices: $6.99 if they scan it and put it onto your storage device, or, an additional $9.99 to burn it onto a CD for you.

Other questions that were asked on the Historical Photos survey included whether or not the library would provide a physical copy of an item in the collection

  • 5 libraries said they charge between $.10 and $.25 for what I took to mean a copy on regular paper which is printed using the library's printer
  • 4 libraries charge a rate more in line with what a photo shop would charge (i.e. $5.00-24.00)
  • 2 libraries do not provide copies
  • 1 library will provide them for free

When asked about possible tools to help with a Historical Photos collection, responses included: Flickr, Content DM, Facebook, a library's OPAC (in this case, Polaris), Illinois State Digital Archive, Local History Digital Archive, websites created specifically for such things, and library websites.

How much of your historical photos collection is digitized?

  • All of the collection:16.7%
  • Some:66.7%
  • None:16.7%

Is the collection available/viewable online?

  • All are viewable online:25%
  • Some:58.3%
  • None:16.7%

If the public wants a physical copy of an image in your collection, will you provide that to them?

  • No:16.7%
  • Yes, for free:8.3%
  • Yes, for a charge:75%

Do you have any mark (e.g. a watermark) on the image that marks it as being part of your collection?

  • Yes:66.7%
  • No:33.3%

No library had a limit to the number of digital copies they would provide.

Thanks again to all who participated!



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Historical Photo Collections Survey

   September 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Historical postcard of the Chelmsford LibraryHi everyone - I'm hoping you can help out with a quick survey. Kersten Matera from the Nashua (NH) Public Library is compiling data on how libraries handle digitized collections of historical photos.

Please, take a couple minutes to fill out the survey below. It's always interesting to compare how libraries handle similar tasks, and I'm particularly curious to learn what software libraries use to share their digital collections.

When the survey is complete, Kersten and I will post the results for everyone to check out - thanks for helping:

And for what it's worth, my library has put our historical photograph collection (such as it is - it's not something we actively collect) on our flickr account, which patrons and others can use free of charge, provided they comply with our CC license.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/4/10

   September 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Canadian UmbrellaLast week, a fairly well-dressed older male patron, carrying a leather briefcase, approached the desk. He explained he making a driving trip from Ottawa, ON, to Saint John, NB, for three weeks this October, and wanted to know how much rain there will be.

This actually reminded me of reference question from a couple years ago, and again I reached first for the same resource - the Old Farmer's Almanac we keep in Ready Reference. However, our edition only covers the US.

So I turned to the internet, and a search for longrange canadian weather forecast led to the long-range section of the Old Farmer's Almanac website. The page was for the US but it linked to Canadian listing.

We checked both regions he would travel in - one region said it would have a wetter-than-normal October, and the other drier-than-normal.

To get a better idea of what "normal" was, we also looked at historical weather data from The Weather Network (Canada's weather channel). This was great because it allows historical searches for a date range, which can be a tough thing to find when you need it. I've done this a couple times for local weather, so was quite pleased that my first search for Canadian weather was this successful - and the patron was happy, too.

And speaking of traveling, if you need a laugh, check out my latest passport photo - somehow I ended up as red as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag. Le sigh.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/1/09

   March 7th, 2009 Brian Herzog

harrington elementary t-shirtThis week's reference question isn't actually very good, but I'm using it to illustrate a point.

Last week I got a call. The patron says,

There's an elementary school in town named after Charles D. Harrington - what information do you have on who he was and why the school was named after him?

This wasn't something I couldn't answer right off, so I took his name and number and told him I'd call when I found something. The problem is, the more I looked, the less I found.

What I Could Find
With local history questions like this, I didn't think I'd find much in the library's catalog, but I checked there first anyway. It turns out, Charles D. Harrington was listed as an author of the official program from Chelmsford's tercentenary celebration in 1955. That was more than I expected, but it was all I was able to find in the library - nothing in our vertical file under "schools," nothing in the other local history books.

I thought the school itself must have a history on their website, but I couldn't find one. So I called their main office (albeit about a half an hour before school let out), but was told that no one in the office had been there for more than a few years, and they had no idea.

The local historical society and historical commission both have online archives, but all I came up with there was a history of the fire department [pdf, 6.53MB] which mentioned Charles D. Harrington serving on a committee in 1947.

To find out when the school itself was built, I searched the town's online assessor's database, and learned it was built in 1968 [pdf, 26KB].

All of these dates provided a rough idea of when he was alive, but still not enough to search for an obituary (and our obituary database only goes back to the mid-80's).

So I gathered these bits of information and contacted the patron. In addition to the above, I also gave him the contact information for the historical society, Town Clerk, and the local paper's obituary office. He thanked me for all the work, and assured me that what I found was very helpful to him.

Why This Should Have Been Better
Despite what he said, I didn't feel like I helped very much. This should have been a very easy question. Any one of the students in this elementary school should be able to answer it, and yet I couldn't.

Which is why the Town-Wide History Project we started last year is so important. The need to be able to answer local history questions like this isn't just something for reference librarians, but for anyone who lives - or will live - in town. Sadly, due to recent budget and staff cuts, the project has stalled. But it hasn't died - we're still slowly moving forward, as are other groups in town.

That's the good thing about historical projects - delays don't really hurt, they just give history more time to unfold and create more information and materials for the project.



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New York Times x2

   December 11th, 2008 Brian Herzog

New York Times front page from July 29th, 1974Yesterday must have been National New York Times day - I learned two news ways to access articles from the NYT, completely coincidentally.

The first way was the arrival of a book I ordered for our Reference Collection, The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages: 1851-2008. The oversized book itself is 300+ front pages from significant days since 1851, and it also comes with every front page contained on a set of DVDs.

Of course, the first thing we did was look up our birthdays, and so far no one was born on a significant day. But we found them in the very easy-to-use, PDF-based, DVDs. No special programs need to be installed, everything worked first time, etc.

Which makes me more comfortable having this book in the Reference Collection - people don't need to take it home if the DVDs work flawlessly on our computers, and the PDFs are ready-formatted to print on 8.5"x11" paper. Reading them is easier electronically when you can zoom in, but the book also comes complete with magnifying lens.

The second way was through Google News search. Not that I was surprised, but I had just never noticed before that Google News added "Archives" links to the left side of the search results page. Clicking into the 1800's, the matches were for-pay links into the Washington Post, but also free full-text links into the NYT. I knew the NYT had made their archive available, but having their articles show up in a context search like this is very useful. Plus, when you click through into the story, there is a link for a PDF version of the original newsprint, which I think qualifies as a primary source.

So, a good day for historical research using the New York Times.



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