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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/2/11

   January 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Monty Python Scene 2I only got involved with this question towards the end - which was good, because that was the funny part.

An older patron came in and asked one of my coworkers:

Can you help me find an obituary? A friend told me that a woman we know died, but we're not sure when. The last time either of us spotted her alive was in October 2010.

That's straight-forward enough. The patron gave my coworker the deceased woman's name, and said she lived in Duxbury, MA. But, no matter what my coworker did, she couldn't find an obituary - that's when she asked me if I could think of anything else.

I basically retraced her steps - checking America's Obituaries and Dead Notices, Legacy.com, and the Duxbury Clipper newspaper website. When all of those failed to provide any information, we had both turned to general internet searching.

We started searching with "[name with middle initial]" obituary, but all we found was an obiturary for someone with this name in Souix City and another in Connecticut - they had the right dates of death, but were not the right people.

Next we dropped the woman's middle initial from our search and added the word "Duxbury," and this produced something very interesting: a woman by that name had left a comment on another Duxbury resident's death announcement in December 2010.

It was at this moment that it occurred to me that the person for who we were searching for an obituary may not actually have died.

My coworker changed tactics and looked for the presumed-dead woman's address phone number, and found that of her and her husband in Duxbury. When she called the patron and explained that we couldn't find an obituary and that the person may still be alive, the patron said,

Well, that is possible - the person who told me she died isn't always reliable.

My coworker gave her the person's phone number, and she said she intended to call her. But wow, what an awkward phone call that could be.

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