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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/18/09

   October 24th, 2009

flagpoleOn my drive in to work this past Thursday, I noticed the Fire Stations in town had the American Flag flying at half-mast. I wondered why, but forgot about it by the time I got to the library.

Shortly after we opened, someone walked up to the desk said he saw some Flags at half-mast, and asked why the Library's Flag wasn't. No one on staff knew, so I went online looking for some kind of government Flag-flying website. I found all kinds of useful resources.

I didn't find any government proclamation lowering the Flag that day, but I did find a few half-mast calendars, as well as many flag companies that offer email notification reminders of when to lower the Flag:

Flag Flying Calendars & Notifications

It was also interesting (to me) to read about when the Flag could be flown at half-mast. Lots of pages offered general information, including the Flag Code:

General Flag Information

However, none of this answered my question about why some Flags in town had been lowered and some hadn't. I called the Town Manager's office, to see if they knew of (or had issued) a proclamation, but they were as puzzled as I.

So I called the Fire Department, since it was Fire Station Flags I had seen lowered. The person I spoke with there said the Stations lowered their Flags because a former Fire Chief had died, and they were honoring him.

Okay, so that answers that question. I'm not sure this is permitted under the Flag Code, but I wasn't going to push it. In researching this, I did learn that it was okay to put a black ribbon on a Flag to mourn someone's death (or when a fixed Flag can't be lowered), which I hadn't known.

And being the person I am, my favorite finds of the day were Flag Code Violations in the News and American Flag Wall of Shame, which detail prominent gaffs of people who really should have known better.

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5 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 10/18/09”

  1. Sarah Scully Says:

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for putting together a very useful list of flag-related information.

    I did want to mention one picky detail, which is the use of the phrase “half mast”. Many people incorrectly use this phrase to describe flag position on a pole on land. The correct phrase for land-based flags is “half staff,” as reflected in the links in this post. Flags flown at sea would be at “half mast,” as in the mast of a ship.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Sarah: funny you’d say that – I actually debated about mast/staff while writing this. I wasn’t sure if there was a difference, but thought if there was, it’d have to do with mast=water – which I took to be the original phrase, so I just went with it. Thanks for pointing out the difference.

  3. Peggy Says:

    Maine has an RSS feed: Governor’s Flag Etiquette
    Current flag status for the State of Maine. Any changes in flag status will be noted and explained.
    It is extremely useful.

  4. Lisa Says:

    Great post, it inspired me to write a blog post from a Canadian perspective at http://make-it-known.blogspot.com/2009/10/is-flag-at-half-mast-why.html

    And there’s an interesting discussion here about the mast/staff vocabulary issue: http://www.cbc.ca/news/indepth/words/flagflap.html – it’s from a Canadian perspective, but also gives background history and includes American information too.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Lisa: Thank you for the link – that was interesting. I thought there was a distinction between the two, I just tend to use them interchangeably.

    Incidentally, the same is true with “hardcover” and “hardback” – I use those interchangeably, but was recently corrected when I said “hardback.” I was told that “paperback” is okay, but “hardcover” is preferred and “hardback” is incorrect.