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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/1/09

   March 7th, 2009

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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4 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/1/09”

  1. Winnie Says:

    Local history is a big reference question area where I work – notice I said “question”. We are a small library and have few resources, although the almost generic feel of your example question would be a breeze for us. Most of what we can help people with is based on me living here for 50 years and two of my co-workers marrying into families that have been here 100. The types of questions we get asked are more along the lines of “My Grampa built a house here in 1910 – can you help me find it?” or “Granma founded the WI here – do you have anything about her?” They are usually put to us by visitors who have never been here before. But when you answer these! The 80 year old woman who had a photo of herself at two on her Grampa’s front porch kissed me when I recognised the house and and gave her a map.

  2. Mary Jo Says:

    Did you know there is a hospital in Southbridge called the Harrington Memorial Hospital that was initially funded by a $150,000 donation from Mr. and Mrs. Charles D. Harrington (of the Russell Harrington Company, now Dexter-Russell?) in 1929? Could be a philanthropic family…

  3. Rachel R Says:

    Here’s my new favorite question of the week: Man calls and says “I’m blind and I’m at the bus stop. Can you come get me?” Staff person says, “No, we can’t come get you, but if you tell me which bus stop you are at I can give you directions.” Man says, “I don’t know which one, I’m blind.”

    True story.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Winnie: The problem with this question is that you either know the answer or you don’t. I’ve only been here about three years, but even the 40+ year library veterans didn’t know. Unfortunately, our resources are such that when personal knowledge fails us, there’s no good resource to always reliably fall back on – yet. Knowledge management is important for everyone – even the US Government.

    @Mary Jo: Thanks for that – I had no idea, but I’ll follow up on it.

    @Rachel: I love it. It’s amazing… some of these couldn’t be made up. So what happened to your blind man? I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that people think library staff would come pick them up where ever they are.