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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/15/13

   September 21st, 2013 Brian Herzog

On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened signI hear this reference question maybe two or three times a year, and it's one that I equally enjoy and despise. Despise because I tend to have a very low success rate with them, but enjoy because I know that if I weren't a librarian, I'd be calling my library to ask the exact same question.

Through the online contact form of the library's ChelmsfordHistory.org website this week came this question:

I'm trying to figure out who originally built my grandmothers house. [It was] built in 1946. I would like to get a name and or pictures of the original structure and the original owner.

This is probably a common question anywhere that has old houses, and lots of people want to know the history of their home. And for some houses, a lot of that work has been done. Our local Historical Commission has made available online a tremendous amount of information from their survey of old homes, but rarely does the patron asking live in one of these. And in this case, finding a photo of the original home - and the owner! - seemed like a particularly tall order.

I don't think I've ever been asked who the builder of a home was, and it seemed like the only possible record of that might have been on the original building permit issued by the Town. I called the Building Inspectors office in Town Hall and spoke to the Building Commissioner, explaining what I was looking for. Although he was helpful, unfortunately the records he has only go back to the 1960s, and he didn't know if older Town records of building permits even still existed.

In the end, he suggested I look for the original deed through the county's Registrar of Deeds. He said that often the first record of sale is from the builder to the first owner - which I didn't know but makes sense. I've only ever used their land records website for current who-owns-this-property type questions, and again struck out because their online records only go back to 1976.

So at this point, I emailed the patron back explaining what I had (not) found so far. I gave her the contact information for the Registrar of Deeds though, because her contacting them directly - or, more likely, her going there in person - might be able to produce the records back to 1946. With that, hopefully, she'll get the names of the builder and original occupant.

As for photos though... since her home wasn't an old one in an historic neighborhood, I think the only source for photos may be family photos of previous residents. I don't know if the patron is motivated enough to track down the family of the original owner, but it might produce some photographs. Also, if the builder is still in business, they may have photos or plans for the original house too. I don't know how much her house has changed since it was built, but if the the builder built multiple homes in the area, there may be some that used the same plans and are still in their original condition, which may give an idea of what her house originally looked like.

I apologized for not being much help, because I felt like I was really grasping at straws at the end. Hopefully she'll have luck with the Registrar of Deeds - and hopefullyier, I'll find a new and helpful "history of my house" resource before the next question like this comes in.

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Bookshelves of Librarians

   February 11th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Librarians are social creatures, right? Despite dowdy stereotypes, many of us are out there Web 2.0'ing it up - among other things, we like sharing our photos on flickr and our books on LibraryThing.

So, I thought a fun meme would be to combine the two - show photos of our personal books and bookshelves. I spied one of Jessamyn's, and uploaded photos of all my bookshelves.* I'm curious to see how other people organize books in their own space.

My Bookshelves (click for descriptions)
My Book Shelves - Non-fiction
My Book Shelves - Reference
My Book Shelves - Fiction

And since timing is everything, this is doubly fun considering LibraryThing's announcement this week about expanding LT's photo capabilities.

So upload photos of your own shelves (librarians and non-librarians) to flickr or LibraryThing or somewhere and share your personal organizational system.


*I didn't photograph all the books in places other than shelves: coffee table, bedside table, bathroom bench, car, piled on the floor, etc. I tell myself those are all "temporary shelving locations."

Also: I can't decide if "bookshelves" should be one word or two - so I use both.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/10/07

   June 16th, 2007 Brian Herzog

On older man with a cane walks up to me at the desk and says:

"How long... is... a lawyer's... binder?"

A good ten seconds went by before I could manage any kind of response, and all I could come up with was, "I don't know what that is."

His response? "Okay."

We then just kind of looked at each other for a few seconds. At this point, I honestly wasn't sure if he was earnestly asking me a question, or if he was completely senile. Sometimes it is hard to tell, but 99% of the time someone is just having difficulty communicating. Time to put my "reference interview" skills to work.

So I as didn't appear too direct, I asked him, "can you explain to me again what you're looking for?"

He said something like, "I'm looking for how long... you know a lawyer... when you pay a lawyer... I don't want to pay a lawyer..."

He then rested for a bit and looked up at the ceiling, and then continued with, "...when you own a house... sell it... what are the forms...?"

From these fragments, I guessed that he wanted to sell his house, but didn't want to have to pay for a lawyer to help him do it. I asked him if he was looking for information to help him sell his house, and he nodded his head.

Ahh, now that's something. I took him over to the 333.33's, and we found a few general home selling books for him to browse through. In the meantime, I went into the reference collection to see what we had as far as Massachusetts-specific forms and information.

When I came back five or ten minutes later, he was sitting at a table with the stack of unopened books in front of him. He said the books were all too general, and they didn't answer his question.

Oh, a question?

"You're looking for something very specific?" I asked, hoping he would volunteer what it was, so I could help him find it.

"Yes... you know... people sell their houses to... their sons, for a dollar... ..."

"And you want to find out how to do that, and what forms you need?"

Again, he just nods.

I like to draw on personal experience as much as possible, but since I've never owned a house, this is a mysterious world to me. But, I thought when it got into something as specific as this, then he's right, these books were either too general or too out of date.

No one else was working the desk with me for me to ask, so I decided to call the Town Tax Assessor's office - since they assess and record the value of a house, I figured they would know what was involved in selling a house for less than its fair market value.

When their office answered, I explained the situation: "I have a patron who would like to know what he needs to do to sell his house to his son for one dollar." Her response was surprisingly simple:

Her:"In that case, all he needs to do is to transfer the title to his son's name."
Me:"I think he wants to avoid using a lawyer - are their any forms that he can use to do this himself?"
Her:"Well, it needs to be a legal transfer, so either a lawyer or a title office. But as far as forms, we don't have anything here like that."

I thanked her, hung up, and relayed the information to the patron. He just started expressionlessly at me while I told him, but kind of perked up when I mentioned a title office. He then turned and walked away from the desk, and I could hear him repeating what I had said, "...title office to transfer... forms... no lawyer binder..."

A few days later, I saw him in the library again. It was a little while before he noticed me, but when he did he smiled and gave me a thumbs-up, so I guess everything went well.

home, homes, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question, selling

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