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


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 – 3/3/13

   March 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Boston Post Cane from Winthrop, MAI think this is my absolute favorite reference question so far this year. It took a few days before the final answer emerged, and it all started with a patron sending in this message from our ChelmsfordHistory.org website's contact form:

Does Chelmsford have a Boston Post cane, if we do who is the lucky holder?

I've lived in New England for about twelve years, and have heard of these canes. What I knew about them was just that some towns had them and some didn't, and they were handed out around the turn of the last century by a newspaper or magazine.

I've been in Chelmsford for seven years, and never heard of one of these canes in connection with Chelmsford. I did a bit of research, and then replied to the patron:

I haven't heard of a cane in connection with Chelmsford. I found a list online of the communities that have them, and Chelmsford isn't included:

http://web.maynard.ma.us/bostonpostcane/the-canes/massachusetts

I think when the canes were passed out by the Boston Post, Chelmsford was a much smaller town than now, and perhaps didn't make the cut of the original 700 towns that received them. I'll check with the Historical Society to be sure, and let you know. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

From this website, I learned more details about the canes: in 1909, they were given to 700 towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, by Edwin A. Grozier, Publisher of the Boston Post newspaper. The tradition was to give the cane to the oldest living resident in town, and then it was passed on to the next oldest when that person died. The cane itself belonged to the town, administered by the Selectmen, but was always supposed be held by the oldest resident. Of course, as towns grew, this became harder to track, and many canes were lost or retired and put on display somewhere.

Anyway, I emailed the Historical Society to be thorough, and while waiting for a reply, continued to check our vertical file and local history resources. I wasn't able to find anything about a Chelmsford cane, so I was surprised by the message I got the following day from the Historical Society:

We have it at the Historical Society now, but I don't think it is on display yet. It went missing for many years but turned up at the Senior Center a couple of years ago. [One of our members] has more details on the mystery if you are interested.

Holy smokes - do you know what this means? The internet lied to me!

I was certainly happy I checked with them. I emailed the patron the good news, but also followed up with the other Historical Society member to see what else I could learn about the cane. The next day, I heard back:

Hi Brian,
You can find out all about the cane in Judy Buswick's book Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst. I'm sure the library has a copy. There is a chapter on the cane.
Take care

Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst coverOops - we do indeed have multiple copies*, and it wasn't one of the books I looked in. The title of the chapter on the cane is "Mystery defines cane's history," which is why this book didn't come up when I searched the catalog for keyword combinations that include Boston or Post (however, a search for "Chelmsford cane" produces this book as the only result).

So, bad on me for not conducting a more thorough search on my own, but I'm glad my reaching out to an expert resource directed me back to the right place.

This chapter, which was originally published as a newspaper article in 1996, detailed the Chelmsford cane's history, from the first few recipients through it being lost, and then suddenly turning up one day at the Senior Center. After that it made its way to the Historical Society for safe keeping, and another Historical Society member said that it is in fact currently in a display case there.

Again, I emailed the patron with what I had learned, including letting him know we have this book in the library. A few days later he came in to pick it up, and we had a nice little talk about the canes, and his interest in them.

Apart from me dropping the ball and not finding the right book when I should have, this was a great reference question. The internet was wrong, local resources were vital, I learned something about local history, and the patron got exactly what he wanted. But best of all, I get to email the people who run that Boston Post cane website to have Chelmsford added, doing my little part to make the internet a better place.

 


*This book is also available for purchase from the Chelmsford Historical Society.



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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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