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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/14/14

   September 21st, 2014 Brian Herzog

This ended up being one of those very rare reference questions where initially it seems like a million-to-one shot, and ends up very casually being that one in a million. This email request came to the reference desk:

Submitted via Chelmsford Library Reference Question.

Allan Daniel Clark, from (born\in North Clemsford, MA Born june 19, 1924, Father Shirley John - Mother Lela M. Lord Clark Enlisted in the US Navy on jan 27, 1953 at Boston, MA Lost on the submarine USS Swordfish (SS-193) --- This man's photo is needed for use with his published Memorial record in the set of six volumes of all the known men lost while attached to a US Submarine Command during World War II. Photos may be in local newspapers of school yearbooks, etc.

That sounds like a great project. My library does have a collection of Chelmsford High School yearbooks, but unfortunately it's not complete. And of course, the further back you go, the more gaps there are in the collection.

But by doing some estimation - someone born in 1924 would be 18 in 1942 - I guessed the yearbooks we'd need would be in the 1940-1943 range. According to the catalog that should be no problem, but when I got to the shelf the only one from that period that was actually there was 1942 - not great odds.

Also, it turns out that Chelmsford High only included photos of the seniors in the yearbooks, with other classes only having their names listed.

But, despite the odds, this was indeed the correct yearbook, and Allan Daniel Clark was right there at the bottom of the page:

Allan Daniel Clark in the CHS yearbook

I was rather surprised, but very happy. I emailed the patron some scanned versions of the page, as well as contact information for the High School to see about copyright permission. I felt really good about being able to answer this question, but even still I was expecting the inevitable reply:

Thank you for your efforts on locating photos. For your reference, i am attaching a description of the six volume series.

Although I wish him well with this project, the library will not be purchasing this six volume series.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/17/10

   January 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

B-17I thought this question was interesting for three reasons:

  1. The question is unusual
  2. I hardly played a role at all in answering it
  3. Despite #2, the patron got an excellent answer

Here's what happened: an email came to the reference desk from someone in the Netherlands, who is writing a book on the Allied pilots who took part in the air war over his country during WWII. In his book, he wants to focus on the lives of the men as people, instead of them as soldiers, and so is trying to track down things like what they did before the war, who their wives/girlfriends were, what growing up was like for them, etc.

Through his research in identifying and tracing the crews of planes shot down in his area, he found that one of the men was a Chelmsford resident. He sent me the man's name and date of death, and asked us to find out whatever we could about his life before the war.

This sounded like an impossible question, especially since we don't have the staff to research something like this. However, I forwarded it to the local genealogy club (with the patron's permission), as they often have volunteers who are willing to work on projects like this.

Within a day, a genealogy club volunteer located an obituary for a descendant of the Chelmsford WWII flier (which mentioned the deceased WWII flier by name), and the obituary also listed the names of living relatives. The volunteer looked up the relatives in the phone book, contacted them, explained about the book the man from the Netherlands was working on, and gave them his contact information. They said they'd be delighted to provide information for him, and would contact him as soon as they organized some photos and other information.

How great is that? I hope the author has this much success in locating information on the other airmen in his book, and I'm happy that there are other organizations in town I can rely on to pick up where the library leaves off.

This is another example of the reference librarian's motto: "you don't have to know the answer to every question, you just have to know where to find the answers."

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/5

   November 11th, 2006 Brian Herzog

Slaughterhouse Five, or, The Children's Crusade bookcoverThis week’s question isn't funny, just interesting (to me, anyway). A little boy, who couldn’t have been any older that nine or ten, comes up to the desk (mind you, this is in the adult section, not the childrens room):

Boy: Do you have any books on the world war?
Me: I’m sure we do - which world war?
Boy: Do you have any books on Hitler?
Me: Sure, I’ll show you where those are.
[We walk to the YA biography section, but all those on Hitler are checked out. So I take him to the adult biography section, where we fine a couple on the shelf - even two thin books, which I was thankful for]
Me: These four books are about Hitler.
Boy: Why are there so many books written about Hitler?
Me: He was an important person who had a big effect on history.
Boy: But Hitler was bad, wasn’t he?
Me: Yes, he did a lot of bad things.
Boy: So why did they write books about him?
Me: People write books about important events in history, so we don’t forget what happened. That way, maybe the bad things won’t happen again.
[At this point, the boy had picked a book to check out, and we’re now walking back up towards the reference desk]
Boy: Is this book about Hitler’s whole life?
Me: Yes, I think so.
Boy: Even about how he died?
Me: Yes.
Boy: How did Hitler die?
Me: Well... [pause] ...he was the leader of an army, and his army was losing the war. He was surrounded by the good guys, and he decided that killing himself was better than being captured by his enemies.
Boy: Is Hitler dead now?
Me: Yeah, he is.
Boy: Okay, thanks.
[He turns around and walks us the steps to the circulation desk]

At the reference desk, I don’t often get to work with little kids. I think the book he chose, being thin and having some pictures, was okay for his reading level. However, I wonder if me telling him about suicide will scar him for life.

The interaction above is all a paraphrase, of course. And incidentally, I included the cover of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five because its subtitle is "The Children's Crusade."
childrens, Hitler, Library, Reference Question, WWII

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