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

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 – 3/29/09

   April 4th, 2009 Brian Herzog

submarineWhen I came into work one morning this week, I found the following note left on my desk by my coworkers from the night before:

This patron would like to know what kind of paint was used on US Navy subs between 1976-1979.
[Name & phone number]

Now that's how I like to start off my Wednesdays.

My first thought was that this would be classified information and require a Freedom of Information Act Request, so the first thing I did was find the Navy's FIOA information and request procedures.

I didn't think I'd be able to find this just laying around the internet, but just in case, and to possibly give the patron more leads, I wanted to see what else I could find. The Navy's website had a very easy-to-find Contact Us form, and even though I thought it was a long shot, I told them who I was and what the patron was looking for. I figured if I heard anything back from them, it would be interesting to the patron.

Next it occurred to me that if the Navy has a library, I might get lucky and find a reference librarian who could direct me to a useful resource. I wasn't even sure if the Navy had a library, but a general Google search for "navy library" found that there is in fact a Naval History Library in Washington. But, wouldn't you know it, their reference desk is closed on Wednesdays.

However, that same Google search also turned up the United States Naval Academy Nimitz Library. They were open, and also listed a phone number, so I gave them a call. The phone was answered on the second ring, and when I told the librarian who I was and what I was looking for, she just laughed and said

That's not exactly the kind of information we have here at our fingertips.

However, she took my name and number and said she'd check around. About an hour later she called back with some interesting information (also: I don't know that I've ever spoken to a nicer or more helpful person on the phone - she was wonderful). First she told me that she had found some information in a database called DyNet, but that database was restricted to military personnel. There is also a civilian version of the database called National Technical Information Service.

ntis-logoShe did a search in NTIS for "submarine paint" and found quite a few matches. Unfortunately, it's just a bibliographic database, and the full text reports are only available for purchase from NTIS. I wasn't sure what kind of paint the patron was looking for, so we weren't able to get too far with this, but it looked like it was what the patron needed.

I called the patron back the next day with what I had found, and he was delighted. He said he and his lawyer had been searching online for months and turned up nothing. Then he explained why he was looking for this information: he said that when he was in the Navy, it was common to be sent to a drydock in Spain to sandblast the hulls of subs and then repaint them. He suspected this took place in Spain to avoid OSHA standards and oversight, because now he was developing health issues and is researching the paint to see if there is a connection.

A couple days later I got an email back from the Navy in response to the message I sent in from their website. They said they'd be able to help, but needed to know more specific information, such as what class of submarine, etc, and I forwarded this to the patron to follow up.

For what initially seemed an unanswerable question, I was happy to find the Navy so open and prompt in responding to a civilian request. The other thing that made me happy was that, at no point in course of asking what kind of paint the Navy used did someone say, "why, Navy Blue, of course."

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