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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