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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/4/10

   September 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Canadian UmbrellaLast week, a fairly well-dressed older male patron, carrying a leather briefcase, approached the desk. He explained he making a driving trip from Ottawa, ON, to Saint John, NB, for three weeks this October, and wanted to know how much rain there will be.

This actually reminded me of reference question from a couple years ago, and again I reached first for the same resource - the Old Farmer's Almanac we keep in Ready Reference. However, our edition only covers the US.

So I turned to the internet, and a search for longrange canadian weather forecast led to the long-range section of the Old Farmer's Almanac website. The page was for the US but it linked to Canadian listing.

We checked both regions he would travel in - one region said it would have a wetter-than-normal October, and the other drier-than-normal.

To get a better idea of what "normal" was, we also looked at historical weather data from The Weather Network (Canada's weather channel). This was great because it allows historical searches for a date range, which can be a tough thing to find when you need it. I've done this a couple times for local weather, so was quite pleased that my first search for Canadian weather was this successful - and the patron was happy, too.

And speaking of traveling, if you need a laugh, check out my latest passport photo - somehow I ended up as red as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag. Le sigh.

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Check to ALA from 1919

   June 10th, 2010 Brian Herzog

1919 check written to the ALAIn 2008, Chelmsford started a town-wide history project, to index the historical records in all the various locations around town. We're still chugging along, and a volunteer found something interesting in the library's archives.

This check for $1.50 was written by the treasurer of the North Chelmsford Library Association to the ALA Publishing Board in 1919. The back of the check is interesting, too. We're still discovering things in the archive, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to figure out what this check was for.

There's three more things about this, if you're interested:

  1. The signature on the check is Stuart MacKay, brother of Anna C. MacKay, who the Anna C. MacKay Branch Library in North Chelmsford is named after. North Chelmsford has been, and is now, very supportive of the library, and I like this continuity of history. Also interesting that he was working on Christmas Eve.
  2. Also uncovered in the archive are circulation records from the early 1900's - including every book each patron checked out. An interesting philosophical question is this: at what point do library records go from being a matter of patron privacy to a matter of historical record or curiosity?
  3. For our indexing project, we're using Past Perfect, and will be providing access through Past Perfect Online (but nothing's been uploaded yet). Until that's ready, we're using a Google Custom Search Engine to index all the existing online resources we could find. It works well enough for the time being, and I know this is going to be a long-term project, but I'm looking forward to having a real index available.

Neat, huh?

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/1/09

   November 7th, 2009 Brian Herzog

USS United StatesThis was kind of a fun question. A patron called in and said:

I'd like to know any information you've got on the USS United States. It's an old Navy ship from the War of 1812. I heard some guy on the East Coast is going to build a replica of it next year, so I want to know about that, but I also want to know about its history.

Okay, that's fairly straightforward. The only major catch is that almost every single book or website that contains the keyword "uss" will also contain the phrase "united states," so searching might require a different strategy.

I know we have books in the collection on historical ships, but nothing concrete was coming up with a search for "uss united states." I then searched for just books on Navy ships, and from the indexes I found some basic information.

I next tried the internet, with a search for "uss united states" to get started. The first result was a Wikipedia disambiguation page, from which I learned that there's been more than one ship called the USS United States. I chose the ship from the right era, and read about the its history - but no mention of a replica.

However, the best part about the article was the bibliography at the bottom. It listed seven books, two of which had reasonably recent copyright dates, which means I could probably request them from another library.

[Now comes my favorite part of this question]

But just because they were listed here, I wasn't sure how much information they'd have on the ship. I looked them both up on Amazon, hoping they'd have the "search inside this book" feature. They did, so I was able to flip through their indexes, and saw that both books had numerous entries for the USS United States. This made me feel comfortable requesting them for the patron.

A third book didn't have this feature, but was in the reference collection of another library in my consortium, so I did an old-fashion favor-asking to see if they could check that book's index and fax me any useful pages.

That seemed like enough historical information, so I switched to looking for news about someone building a replica. On this point I couldn't find a thing. I found a lot on model building, but nothing about someone building a full-scale replica.

I called the patron and told him the book titles to expect, and also that I couldn't find anything on the replica. He said he wasn't surprised, since the guy didn't have any funding yet and was trying to keep the whole project a secret. Hmm.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/1/09

   March 7th, 2009 Brian Herzog

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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25 Famous Librarians Who Changed History

   February 12th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis CarrollLast week I received an email heads-up for a blog post entitled 25 Famous Librarians Who Changed History.

It's an interesting quick read, and it was neat to learn that both Mao Zedong and Lewis Carroll, among others, had both been librarians in their lives (congratulations to #24 for being recognized as a history-changer).

I'd never heard of the website before, but the rest of the posts on their blog (started in Jan 2009) seemed equally interesting.

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Town-Wide History Project

   November 20th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Town of Chelmsford sealSomething new my library is undertaking is a Town-Wide History Project. Our goal is to create a master index of all of the historical records in town, so we'll know where different types of information is stored. Phase 2 will be preservation and digitization of as much of this as possible.

Good idea? Yes. Lot of work? More than we realize.

We expect this process to take years, so we're trying to start slow and small so as not to get overwhelmed. We're also trying to document everything as we go along, so we'll have a record of how we went about doing this, and when certain things were accomplished. Since other libraries might be interested in the same sort of project, here's our progress so far (I'll occasionally post updates, too).

Our Process
I'm told that this was tried about eight years ago in Chelmsford, but was abandoned less than a year after it started. The library was approached a few months ago to try again, and I immediately took to the idea. A comprehensive local history finding aid would be very valuable at the reference desk.

In addition to library staff, we also have a volunteer who has been helping with a lot of the work. She's been responsible for most of the data entry and envelope stuffing, and will also be helping when it comes to visiting each site to do an inventory. Without her, most of these steps would have been much more difficult.

  1. Meet to organize project - A project like this will have a lot of meetings. Initially library staff met with our volunteers to define the scope and goal of the project, and to create a rough timeline
  2. Identify groups in town with historical records/artifacts - In our case, we had a few resources that helped with this. Since a similar project was begun a few years ago, some of their records still existed, including a list of the organizations involved. Another tool is our Community Information database, which lists non-profit groups in town. My volunteer also found official Town departments and boards which might have historical records
  3. Compile a list of groups - The volunteer took these various lists and created a master contact list as an Excel spreadsheet, with just name, address, phone, email, website and contact name
  4. Contact the groups - While the volunteer was compiling the spreadsheet of names, we were also drafting a letter that would introduce the project to these groups, and a preliminary survey, which would be sent along with the letter. The goal of the survey was to give library staff an idea of how much materials each group had, what kind of shape it was in, and where it was located:

    To mail them, we did a simple mail-merge between Word and Excel, and enclosed a stamped return envelope. We also enclosed a list of all the groups contacted, in the hopes that the recipients will be able to suggests organizations we didn't think of.

    Also in the cover letter, we invited everyone to a meet-and-greet type introductory meeting, scheduled about a month in advance

  5. Compile the returned surveys - As the surveys were returned, we compiled the answers into the same spreadsheet we had begun. We used a different worksheet, and kept track of who replied, if the contact information had changed, and how they answered the questions. On another worksheet, we aggregated the answers for all groups, so we'd know how many map collections were in town, how many were available online, etc.

    At this point we have outgrown Excel, and need a database for our needs, not just a simple spreadsheet. I'm going to have to find a tool to accomplish this before the project grows more, because the less data we have to rekey, the better.

  6. Introductory meeting - We wanted our first face-to-face meeting not be a lecture by library staff, but more of a conference, where all participates in the group were equal. Library staff did lead the meeting to give an overview of what we had in mind, but once things got going the other attendees really began to take ownership of the idea and see a role for their organization.

This is as far as we are in the process right now - which is to say, the very, very beginning. The consensus at the meeting (which was just last night) was to invite a speaker to give an overview on what kind of materials are historically-important, and what groups can do to prepare for an on-site inventory. The groups also wanted to see examples of what the end result will look like (for our project, we're using communities like Westford, Sudbury and Ipsiwch as models).

We're going to plan that for late January/early February, and then start scheduling site visits for initial inventories. How those first few site visits go will shape how we proceed, and help define who does what. Eventually we will apply for a grant, to help with the preservation and digitization aspects.

It's an exciting project, just massive. I'm happy that the town is behind such a project, and that it is being coordinated by the library. Local history questions are often the most difficult to answer, and a project like this will go a long way to ensuring this information is both available and accessible to researchers and the curious alike.

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