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

Old Timey Photo Editing

   August 14th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Before and after photos of Cedar Point dock, circa 1900The library in my hometown has a blog, which I read because it's well done and because it's a way for me to stay connected with where my family lives.

I particularly enjoyed one recent post. Someone found a photo in the library's historical archive that had been later doctored for use in a promotional book.

Check the original post for bigger photos. It is interesting to see how the photo, circa 1900, could be altered so well - as opposed to some of the bad work being done now with Photoshop.

This shows that fun can come from library archive, especially photo archives. Also, too, the subject of the photo is interesting. It's the dock of Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, OH. And I am always amazed at how dressing nicely was just a matter of course in that era. People at Cedar Point don't dress like that anymore.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/4/08

   May 10th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) A few weeks ago, I got an email at the library from a librarian working towards a Masters Degree in American Studies. She was researching Mark Twain, and specifically whether public libraries during his life censored his works.

She was contacting all the libraries in the country that were open at the time (Chelmsford's Adams Library is usually dated at 1894, but various library associations in the town date to the 1790's), hoping our accession records would indicate which Twain books were held by the library, and whether they were shelved as adult or childrens books.

Up until this question, I had a vague understanding that we had old library records, but I didn't know how extensive they were, what condition they were in, or what was in them. So I was happy to get this question, as in the course of helping someone, I also had an excuse to check out these records.

It turns out, there is a lot in the library archive. Much of it are treasurer reports or invoice logs, and were either uninteresting (to me) or indecipherable (just columns and columns of numbers). But I also found library member rolls from the late 1800's, and one ledger even had the circulation history of the patrons (all done in longhand).

But getting down to brass tacks, I was very happy to find book lists from the era, which listed the books, author, publisher, date, call number, and a few other things. And it turned out that there were two libraries operating in Chelmsford at the time, which were later merged into the single library I work in today. So, I was able to research this question in both sets of records.

But here's the best part: one book in the archive was entitled "List of Books (not all juvenile) for Boys" and was prepared by Librarian Emma J. Gay. It consisted of handwritten pages broken up into sections (Stories, History, Biography, Travel, Scientific, Natural History, Games and Amusements, and Miscellaneous). The title page, along with a title page for each section, was professionally typeset and printed, and the whole book was professionally bound in hardcover.

In the Stories section, there is the following entry:

Clemens, S. L. (Mark Twain)
   Adventures of Tom Sawyer 1505 [accession number]
   Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1803 [accession number]

I really want to do something with this book, but I don't know what. I'm guessing it dates to the 1880's, and it was interesting flipping through seeing what books back then appealed to boys.

And for the record, here are the Mark Twain holdings I could locate in the archive:

Title Author1 Date Call No.2 Source3
Adventures of Tom Sawyer S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1881 c625.2 NCLA
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1885 c625.1 NCLA
A Tramp Abroad Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1889 c914.8 NCLA
The Innocents Abroad S. L. Clemens "Mark Twain" 1894 c625.2 NCLA
Prince and Pauper Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.7 CFPL
Adventures of Tom Sawyer Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.13 CFPL
Sketches New and Old Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.9 CFPL
American Claimant Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) 1895 c55.1 CFPL
Joan of Arc / Personal Reflections of Samuel Langhorne Clemens 1896 c55.2 CFPL
A Tramp Abroad Samuel Langhorne Clemens 1896 c87.22 CFPL
1: It was interesting to see the different ways his name was written, and that "Mark Twain" was always secondary
2: Most of these are a mystery to me
3: NCLA: North Chelmsford Library Association; CFPL: Chelmsford Free Public Library

Some of the records were too fragile to use, and some of the handwriting illegible, so I don't think this is a complete list. I emailed what I found to the patron, and she was very happy, and it was fun to this kind of real historical research for a change.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/6/08

   January 12th, 2008 Brian Herzog

The Library Is OpenSometimes, even before the patron has said anything, I just know that they are going to qualify for "Reference Question of the Week."

A couple in their sixties or seventies walked up to the desk, and the wife takes charge:

We just got back from my son's house, and while we were gone it snowed. I know it, because there's snow in my yard. What I want you to tell me is how much snow there is. My neighbor told me it snowed on December 13th and again on the 16th, and you have to tell me how much snow it snowed in them storms.

Well, I told her that it would take me some time to find this information, and that I'd call her when I did. I took down her number, and over the course of the next couple hours, searched for some kind of snowfall record in between helping other patrons.

The first place I always try for weather data is NOAA. I tried various searches in Google and restricted to the noaa.gov site, but didn't have much luck. I did find snowfall monitoring data files, which seemed promising because each file was for a specific month and year, broken down by day, and covered lots of cities in every state. However, the nearest city to this patron's yard didn't have data, so that didn't help.

I also found the National Climatic Data Center, which is the "World's largest archive of climate data." However, the free data they offered unfortunately didn't address this question.

So, I kept searching. I must tried twenty different ways to find this data, from scanning news reports from days after these storms to trying to contact local weather monitoring stations for their data to checking snowfalls at nearby airports. But in every case, either the data was missing, or the station was too far away to extrapolate to this woman's yard, or the data wasn't free, or the website seemed too unreliable to even bother with.

Then, happily, a colleague of mine walked by, and I asked her to help me out. I was getting frustrated, and I hoped a new approach to the problem would produce something useful.

We both looked, and found the Weather Underground's historical data about the same time. This was a wonderful little tool, letting us search by zip code and date. But the "precipitation" listed for that day was much lower than we expected. I remember getting about 8 inches of snow in each storm, but wunderground was reporting 0.81 inches.

Eventually we decided they were reporting "precipitation" as the equivalent of rainfall, not the snow that accumulated. This realization led us on a tangent to see if we could find a formula to convert inches of rain to inches of snow.

Even though the formulas we found actually did convert the wunderground data into snowfall levels close to what we expected, we decided this was still questionable research, at best, and kept on.

And it was then that my colleague found it.

She tried a simple search for "snowfall chelmsford," and noticed the url of one of the returns was accuweather.com linking in to their current weather report for North Chelmsford. At the bottom of that page was a link to a Past Weather Check.

Although this data only seems to go back one month, it was far enough to cover the two dates the patron provided. And, best of all, it gave both precipitation and snowfall, for our exact zip code.

This came about three hours after the patron originally asked me the question, and with much relief I called her to give her the amounts. Even her response, "yeah, that's about what my neighbor said" [click] couldn't dampen my spirits after answering this one (with a tremendous amount of help from a coworker, of course).

But recent-past questions like this are always tough, especially weather questions. It's easier to find what the weather was like years ago than what it was like a week ago, which just seems wrong to me. But as long as I keep bookmarking these resources, maybe next time the answer will come a bit quicker.

Incidentally, Accuweather.com said we got 10.1" of snow on the 13th and 7.6" on the 16th. That means I shoveled 17.7" that weekend, at my house and at the library.

amount, archive, historical, libraries, library, public, reference question, snow, snowfall, totals, weather

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Free Online Historical Newspapers

   January 10th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Access NewspaperARCHIVE logoA few months ago I got an email about a website called Access NewspaperARCHIVE, saying that libraries could signup for free access to historical newspapers, dating back to the 1700s.

Sweet. I'm always looking for good primary source resources, especially online ones (and especially-especially free ones), so I thought I'd check this out. The signup process was a bit odd, having to download and then fax in their signup form [pdf, 418 kb]. I didn't hear anything back from them for months, so one day I just tried their url again (from within the library) and it IP-authenticated me.

So, I took that as us being signed up, and I started playing. The database is neat, as all the newspapers in there are saved as PDF files (see the 7/29/1895 Sandusky Register). And some are older than I could find in our other available resources, so those are two great things in its favor. However, I did see some drawbacks:

  • In-Library use only. And right on the authenticated homepage (the one patrons would see by logging in at the library) is a link to "Sign up for a home account." Which isn't expensive, but it's not free. It's just a little bit underhanded to give libraries a free account and then use that as a vehicle to sell to our patrons. So, I bypass this page and go right to the Browse page
  • No keyword searching. You can only browse by location, date, or newspaper title. Which will be fine for the "what happened on my birthday" questions, or if you were just looking up anything old in your area, but eliminates searching for a topic. And, the browse tool and the results listing are kind of clunky
  • No Massachusetts Newspapers. Which is a pain, since I mainly serve Massachusetts patrons. So, I guess no local historical information for me
  • Front pages only? For the papers I viewed, it wasn't the entire paper but just the front page. That's a pain
  • Not high-quality scans. The newspapers are legible, both on screen and printed, but they are just a little bit too bitmapped. And they are images, rather than text-based, which means no copy/pasting

So, my overall verdict is this: it's an amazing resource for primary source newspapers, and it's free, so it's better than nothing. There are some drawbacks, but I am rarely completely satisfied anyway.

Something else I did like was they had a "Questions? Ask a Librarian" link. This is an email link to whatever email address you supplied on the signup form. Which is good, since my patrons using this will be able to write to me, instead of this company.

Anyway, this is available, so I'm going to give it a try. If anyone has experience with this company or database, please comment below and let us know what you think. Thanks.

access, database, databases, historic, historical, libraries, library, newspaper, newspaperarchive, newspapers, primary, public, source, sources

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