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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SOPA and Protect-IP Links

   January 12th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Website BlockedThis is the last cause I'll promote (for awhile), but it's a big one. Hopefully by now you've heard of the two bills in Congress that threaten the future of the internet - SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate.

If you're not sure how either of these will affect you (and libraries), here's a few quick descriptions I've seen recently:

From BoingBoing's SOPA and everyday Americans:

The harm that does to ordinary, non-infringing users is best described via a hypothetical user: Abe. Abe has never even so much as breathed on a company’s copyright but he does many of the things typical of Internet users today. He stores the photos of his children, now three and six years old, online at PickUpShelf* so that he doesn’t have to worry about maintaining backups. He is a teacher and keeps copies of his classes accessible for his students via another service called SunStream that makes streaming audio and video easy. He engages frequently in conversation in several online communities and has developed a hard-won reputation and following on a discussion host called SpeakFree. And, of course, he has a blog called “Abe’s Truths” that is hosted on a site called NewLeaflet. He has never infringed on any copyright and each of the entities charged with enforcing SOPA know that he hasn’t.

And yet, none of that matters. Under SOPA, every single one of the services that Abe uses can be obliterated from his view without him having any remedy. Abe may wake up one morning and not be able to access any of his photos of his children. Neither he, nor his students, would be able to access any of his lectures. His trove of smart online discussions would likewise evaporate and he wouldn’t even be able to complain about it on his blog. And, in every case, he has absolutely no power to try to regain access. That may sound far-fetched but under SOPA, all that needs to happen for this scenario to come true is for the Attorney General to decide that some part of PickUpShelf, SunStream, SpeakFree and NewLeaflet would be copyright infringement in the US. If a court agrees, and with no guarantee of an adversarial proceeding that seems very likely, the entire site is “disappeared” from the US internet. When that happens Abe has NO remedy. None. No way of getting the photos of his kids other than leaving the United States for a country that doesn’t have overly broad censorship laws.

A much more succinct description, from Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro (also via BoingBoing):

[SOPA is championed by] politicians who are proudly unfamiliar with how the internet works, but who are well familiar with favors from well-heeled copyright extremists.

And Stephen Colbert explains it well too:

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,Video Archive

[video link]

Of course there's lots more reading to be done on this if you're interested:

No call to action will work unless people actually take action. Right now many Congressmen and Senators are still at home on vacation, but will be back in session in the next week or two. Now is the time to contact them, as them to explain what these bills are, and urge them to vote against them. Here are some things to help:

But most importantly, if you're not already familiar with SOPA and Protect-IP, read through some of these links - it's worth it. Thanks.

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Yard Work

   May 5th, 2007 Brian Herzog

photo of a flowerThe weather has been nice this past week, and with more light in the evenings thanks to Congress, I've been doing yard work.

The house I rent sits up on a hill, which translates to having no lawn - just trees, bushes, and lots of leaves on the ground. This year I decided to rake, because the fresh grassy lawns of the neighbors made me feel guilty.

But I like yard work, and exploring the yard was fun. I uncovered a few interesting things, and I got to find out what kind of plants are growing in the yard. I'm not much of a green thumb person (although I have had the same three cacti since college - 11+ years and counting), so I'm happy when nice things manage grow all by themselves. Nature's so bitchin'.
bush, bushes, flowers, house, plants, yard, yard work

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