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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Generations of Recreated Family Photos

   January 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

I thought this was neat - a woman had photos of her maternal line going back to her Great-great-great-grandmother, and she decided to recreate each shot and display the original and recreated photos side-by-side.

In this example, she is on the right, and her Great-great-great-grandmother Martha, who was born in 1821, is on the left:


Check out the rest. I saw this on our Genealogy Group's listserv, which linked to an article with more information.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/16/13

   June 22nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Nuns with gunsI work in Chelmsford, MA, and the Town is in the process of establishing two "cultural districts" in two of our local historical village centers. It's similar to a historical district, but instead focuses on what makes Chelmsford culturally-distinct: art, architecture, programs & events, etc.

The group asked me to help create a map of both districts, labeling all the different locations of interest. I've played a little with custom Google Maps before, and this seemed like the perfect application to try out all the different features.

Creating the maps (check out the current working drafts) was pretty straight-forward. One of the committee members found a great site for custom map icons (which also explained how to make them work), and the text for each point of interest came from a variety of sources.

It was researching each location for a descriptive blurb for the map that produced this week's reference question. I was asked to add St. John The Evangelist Parish church to the North Chelmsford map, so I went to their website looking for something interesting to say about them. What I found was hands-down the most interesting thing I've read in a long time:

The earliest Catholic families living in Chelmsford, Dunstable, Lowell, Tyngsboro and Westford wanted a church of their own. St. Patrick's, Lowell was a five to ten mile walk. The families purchased the Meeting House of the Second Congregational Church of Chelmsford at the corner of Middlesex and Baldwin Streets, Lowell, in 1859. [...]

Men, who toiled in factory, foundry or farm, hurried to the holy work each evening. They struggled to move the building with the aid of horses and log rollers, a few yards at a time, for a distance of two miles along Middlesex Street. "Know Nothing" citizenry, a violent anti-Catholic group, made threats to burn the building and gained court injunctions to stop the building’s movement. The two mile journey was made with at least four men, armed with shotguns, and guarding the Church each night.

Holy smokes, now that is dedication. Researching local history rocks.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/7/12

   October 13th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Sign for The Higgins Moonlite Drive-In, still operating in TennesseeThis was funny. A patron walked up to the desk and asked,

Do you have any information on the drive-in theater that used to be in Chelmsford?

I've been here for about seven years, but had no idea there had been a Chelmsford drive-in. I told the patron this, and he relayed his story:

I've just moved to town, so I was online checking out the area and seeing what was around. I like drive-ins, so I went to this website to see if there were any nearby. I put in "Chelmsford" and it found one listed for Chelmsford. But the weird thing was that when I looked at the address, it was the same address as where I live! My condo complex was build in the early 1990's, and it turns out they tore down the drive-in to build the condos. Do you have any other information on the drive-in?

Now that's bizarre - but also the kind of thing you hear in libraries.

Unfortunately, the 1990's are the doughnut hole era when it comes to historical research. Not old enough for most archives and books, but still too far back to be in online databases. Luckily, there is always hope.

A new book on Chelmsford history was published this year, History of Chelmsford : 1910-1970, and we have a copy right at the desk in our Ready Reference collection. Even though it's supposed to only go to 1970, the editor wisely included an appendix with lots of more recent information (wisely, because he wasn't sure when the next history book would be written). In that appendix was a paragraph on the drive-in, which said it was built in 1957, torn down for the condos in 1994, and gave a little more information. But no photos.

I also suggested this patron contact the Chelmsford Historical Society, which has an extensive photo archive of the area. I gave the patron their contact information, and he was excited to get in touch with them. There are some photos on the drive-in website, but he wanted more.

And when talking about property questions, there's always the Town's tax records. I suggested that to the patron as well, but since we already knew the date range of the drive-in, we didn't think the tax records would offer much.

So, although I didn't actually help this patron very much, this is one of my favorite questions so far this year - this only happened Wednesday, and already I've told this story about ten times. Yay, libraries!

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/20/12

   October 6th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Abacus as adding machine for financial servicesThis might be one of the strangest questions I've ever been asked.

A patron called to ask what information we could find out about the business her husband worked for in Chelmsford in the 1990's. She gave me the name and address of their office from that time, and just said that she had recently been contacted by the IRS concerning his pay and benefits from his time there.

Whew. I told her it might take me some time to research it, and she gave me her name and phone number to contact her when I found something. Interestingly (to me), the phone number she gave me had a California area code.

So anyway, the first step was just to search online for "Financial Applications Consulting Services, Inc." (the name of the company, which unfortunately is also a common description of this type of business) to see if they were still around. I also checked local phone directories and ReferenceUSA, but from what I could tell, they were no longer in business. If that's the case, I'm not sure what I could possibly find to offer this woman, but now it became a personal challenge to find anything at all.

I thought the Town Clerk would have information on businesses in town, when they filed for permits or paid taxes or whatever. However, when I called over there, the Clerk said they had no record of this business - which, she said, isn't unusual, because only certain kinds of businesses need to be on record with them.

Next, since I had the business' old address, I thought I'd try to track down the owner of that building (since it was sort of a strip mall of office suites). I hoped the business would have left some kind of forwarding address when they moved, or at least I'd get the date they closed. I called the current tenants of the same address and explained that I was looking for the building owner to find a previous tenant, and they were happy to give me his name and number. However, they also cautioned that he's difficult to get a hold of because he travels a lot.

So I noted this to pass on the patron, but didn't try contact him myself.

Instead, I went back to web searching, looking more for information about the company than the company itself. This turned up an interesting history:

From Bizjournals.com:
...Financial Applications Consulting Services Inc., which does business under the name Fastech. It is based in Livonia, Mich. ...

From Businesswire.com:
...On July 25, 2003, FASTECH filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. On Nov. 18, 2003, the court ordered the granting of FASTECH's motion to sell certain assets, including its customer base, to Kronos....

Kronos happens to be one of the larger companies based in Chelmsford*, but I don't know if it's a coincidence that a Michigan-based company had a small office here, or if there had been some connection to Kronos all along.

Regardless, I think this gave me the information I was looking for - since Kronos was involved with taking ownership of the company the patron where the patron's husband worked, their legal or human resources department is probably the best resource to answer her questions regarding whatever questions the IRS is asking her.

So I gathered contact information for Kronos, Fastech, the building landlord, and also the URLs for the articles I had found online, and called the patron back. No answer - bummer. I left a message, saying that I had made some progress and asked her to call me back.

A couple days later, the patron's daughter called. She explained that after her father retired, her parents left Chelmsford and moved to California. Recently, her father had died, and in the course of finalizing his estate, the IRS contacted them about outstanding benefits from the time he was employed at this company in Chelmsford. She didn't know what it was about, but really appreciated the information I was able to provide.

That's great, and I was happy to help - but this is one of those questions that still feels opened-ended, because I have no idea how it was ultimately resolved. Of course, it's not about me - I hope the family was able to accomplish whatever they needed to do.


*Kronos has been extremely generous to the Chelmsford Library, donating laptops and other equipment - thank you very much!

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Displaying Circulation History in the Catalog

   May 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Catalog card with commentsMy last post and peoples' comments got me thinking about displaying the circulation history of items, and how it might make items more interesting.

I don't know how many library patrons consider the fact that other people have used an item before them (unless, of course, they find some evidence of that use). But if we started showing the cost-per-circ, it might prompt some people to wonder about the X number of people who also were interested in the same thing as them.

Obviously, libraries couldn't cross any privacy lines, but I do think there are ways to highlight the "shared resources" aspect of the library, and to emphasize a sense of community among our patrons.

Some ideas for what could be shown:

  • Detailed stats on cost-per-circ (including a breakdown on the library's cost for that item - price we paid for it, processing cost, etc) - and, as Walt said, this would be particularly interesting for databases
  • Number of local checkouts vs. ILLs and network transfers (along with current number of holds)
  • Along with number of checkouts, calculate the popularity ranking vs. total library items checkouts
  • Date the item was added to the collection, and date of last checkout (and check-in)
  • Some catalogs by default have an opt-in reading history for patrons; they should also have an opt-in way to make their checkout history public, on an item-by-item basis
  • Some catalogs, and some third-party plugins (like ChiliFresh and LibraryThing for Libraries), allow patrons to include their review and rating for items right in the catalog record
  • Ebook readers should be able to leave comments and notes in the ebook, which subsequent patrons could either turn on or off depending on if they wanted to see them

Some of this information is available in our staff view, and I use it all the time - why not make it available to the public, too?

One drawback to making this kind of item information available is that we might get a lot more "weeding suggestions" from patrons, on items they don't feel have provided enough value to the library (or that have been used too much). Of course, I get this to some degree already, so it's just a matter of having - and employing - a good collection development policy.

Does anyone's catalog include features like these? How do patrons like them?

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