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

Reference Question of the Week – 7/15/12

   July 21st, 2012 Brian Herzog

Tornado Shelter signThis was kind of a fun question. Earlier this week, we received the following email message from a patron:

I have been referred to you by Town Hall. I am hoping to find some archived material relating to the tornado that hit Chelmsford on 21 July 1972. I am quite interested in learning more about the precise path the tornado took through town, the response by the town, and, since I am a meteorologist, more about the weather situation on that day.

This was actually the first time I'd ever heard of this tornado. I knew we wouldn't have any books or anything on such a local phenomena for this time period, so the first place I looked for information was the library's secret weapon, the Vertical File.

A few years ago, staff indexed our vertical file into an Excel spreadsheet, so doing a word search for "tornado" was a snap - and produced these two news clippings:

  • Tornado hits town; Chelmsford Newsweekly, 7/27/1972; article; photographs
  • Tornado strikes Chelmsford; Chelmsford Sentinel, 7/26/1972; article

We also have the entire newspaper from this time on microfilm, which might also contain additional information.

Of course, both of these resources require the patron to come into the library. The Town of Chelmsford's Annual Reports are available online (thanks to the Boston Public Library and the Internet Archive), and searching the 1972 annual report for "tornado" turned up a few matches concerning the Town's response and the overall cost.

I wasn't sure if NOAA would have any information on this storm, but a general web search found http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com, and their entry for this storm gives a very general storm track (zoom out one level).

I emailed all this to the patron, who was very appreciative. He had actually already found some NOAA/NWS information, and sent me the link to the storm summary [pdf, page 9] from the National Climatic Data Center's Storm Data and Unusual Phenomena data files:

1972 tornado summary

This is now one of my favorite reference questions, because:

  • I was able to provide the patron with helpful information
  • I got to answer it using both new and traditional library resources
  • Useful resources were located quickly using a finding aide developed by library staff
  • I got to share a new library resource (online annual reports) with a patron, who may use it again in the future
  • I learned something about the history of my community
  • The patron participated in the search, even sharing his findings with me
  • I learned of a new and useful weather resource from the patron
  • I was able to add to our Vertical File the information the patron shared with me, thus improving our own resources
  • The timing was so perfect that I get to post this question on the 40th anniversary of the tornado

All good stuff. The patron said he'd be into the library soon to take a look at the news clippings, and I'll be ready and waiting with the Vertical File when he comes.

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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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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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Reference Question of the Week – 4/8

   April 14th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Charleston, SC mapWith all my travels these days, this reference questions is quite appropriate. A patron comes to the desk and says she is going to go to Wilmington, DE to Charleston, SC, and wants to get driving directions.

But what's more, she's planning this trip for later in the summer, and also wants to know what the weather will be like in June and July. And, she seems to fully intend on planning her trip around whatever long-range weather forecasts I can locate.

But so, first things first: driving directions. Despite my general mistrust of Google, I really do like Google Maps. I don't know how their directions compare (in accuracy, directness, etc.) to MapQuest, Yahoo! Maps (which now looks a lot like Google Maps), or even AAA TripTiks, but I prefer their interface. I like maps, and I like being able to type in the little notes field at the top of the page.

For weather forecasting, I needed to check a few resources. We keep the Old Farmers Almanac on our ready reference shelf, so I first grabbed that. As with most almanacs*, they forecast out what the year will be like in general terms on a regional basis.

This wasn't specific enough for her, so I then turned to the internet. I believe that NOAA has the most reliable weather data, but they only seem to forecast out seven days (they do have a few months worth of historical data, which I've used in the past).

Next I tried the Weather Channel's website. Being commercial, I think they try to pack in more features, but they had what the patron was looking for. In addition to the current forecast, they also have both a monthly planner and monthly averages.

In the case of this patron, the monthly averages were good enough, but we also looked at the daily averages to see if the beginning or end of the month was better. I did feel a need to remind her that these were averages and long-range forecasts, and hence not exactly something to plan a wedding around, but she seemed pretty satisfied.


* In the interest of full disclosure, I used to work for a division of the company that publishes the Farmers' Almanac, a rival of the Old Farmer's Almanac. I personally prefer the Farmers' Almanac, but there you go.


directions, driving directions, forecast, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question, weather, weather forecast, weather forecasts

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