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

Reference Question of the Week – 7/15/12

   July 21st, 2012 Brian Herzog

Tornado Shelter signThis was kind of a fun question. Earlier this week, we received the following email message from a patron:

I have been referred to you by Town Hall. I am hoping to find some archived material relating to the tornado that hit Chelmsford on 21 July 1972. I am quite interested in learning more about the precise path the tornado took through town, the response by the town, and, since I am a meteorologist, more about the weather situation on that day.

This was actually the first time I'd ever heard of this tornado. I knew we wouldn't have any books or anything on such a local phenomena for this time period, so the first place I looked for information was the library's secret weapon, the Vertical File.

A few years ago, staff indexed our vertical file into an Excel spreadsheet, so doing a word search for "tornado" was a snap - and produced these two news clippings:

  • Tornado hits town; Chelmsford Newsweekly, 7/27/1972; article; photographs
  • Tornado strikes Chelmsford; Chelmsford Sentinel, 7/26/1972; article

We also have the entire newspaper from this time on microfilm, which might also contain additional information.

Of course, both of these resources require the patron to come into the library. The Town of Chelmsford's Annual Reports are available online (thanks to the Boston Public Library and the Internet Archive), and searching the 1972 annual report for "tornado" turned up a few matches concerning the Town's response and the overall cost.

I wasn't sure if NOAA would have any information on this storm, but a general web search found http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com, and their entry for this storm gives a very general storm track (zoom out one level).

I emailed all this to the patron, who was very appreciative. He had actually already found some NOAA/NWS information, and sent me the link to the storm summary [pdf, page 9] from the National Climatic Data Center's Storm Data and Unusual Phenomena data files:

1972 tornado summary

This is now one of my favorite reference questions, because:

  • I was able to provide the patron with helpful information
  • I got to answer it using both new and traditional library resources
  • Useful resources were located quickly using a finding aide developed by library staff
  • I got to share a new library resource (online annual reports) with a patron, who may use it again in the future
  • I learned something about the history of my community
  • The patron participated in the search, even sharing his findings with me
  • I learned of a new and useful weather resource from the patron
  • I was able to add to our Vertical File the information the patron shared with me, thus improving our own resources
  • The timing was so perfect that I get to post this question on the 40th anniversary of the tornado

All good stuff. The patron said he'd be into the library soon to take a look at the news clippings, and I'll be ready and waiting with the Vertical File when he comes.

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