Reference Books and Rabbit Holes and Giving Thanks

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s Thanksgiving Eve column “Thankful for Libraries” resonated with me, and not just because I’m a retired librarian who likes to see libraries given their due.

Blow described how his childhood home had a small, homemade hallway bookshelf filled with a set of encyclopedias and “random books that my mother grabbed when the high school library thinned its stacks at the end of each year.”

“They were all reference books,” wrote Blow. “That was what I imagined all books were. I read encyclopedia entries all the time. It was the modern-day equivalent of going down a rabbit hole while web surfing.”

That was my childhood experience, too, though my neighborhood in the Bronx was no doubt very different from his in the small town of Gibsland, Louisiana. (There may have been more people living in the four six-story apartment buildings on my small street, Undercliff Avenue, than there were in all of Gibsland.)

We, too, had a small bookshelf filled with a set of encyclopedias (the 1961 World Book) and other reference books: Bartlett’s Quotations, Roget’s Thesaurus, a pocket rhyming dictionary, and more. And I, too, would read encyclopedia articles, often grabbing a volume on my way to the bathroom or opening to a random page while eating breakfast at the kitchen table.

Reading the comics with the reference bookshelf behind us
Me, my sister Joanna, and her friend Melissa, with the bookshelf of reference materials behind us in the living room of our Bronx apartment. (We’re obviously more interested in the Sunday comics in the Daily News than in the reference books.)

When the annual World Book yearbooks would arrive, I’d help put the tear-off stickers it came with in the appropriate places in the 1961 encyclopedia to indicate there were updates to articles. 

My local branch of the New York Public Library was a tiny facility in the basement of one of the seven tall buildings of the Sedgwick Houses, a public housing project just up the hill from Undercliff Avenue. I’d also make visits every week or so to the larger Francis Martin branch with my father. When I was 15, I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up, though that would not happen until more than 20 years (and several other careers) later. .

But that love of reference books never went away. When a beloved great uncle, who was our family dentist, died in 1986 he left a small amount of money to his nieces and nephews. My father passed that money to me and my sisters under the condition that we spend it on something that reminded us of Uncle Max. Max was a lover of knowledge, and I spent my $1,200 on a 1987 set of the Encyclopedia Americana

I was living in Boston by then, working for my dad’s small New York public relations firm after stints as a newspaper reporter and as a staffer in a group home for developmentally disabled adults. But I was still going down rabbit holes. One of those began with my curiosity about the history of the retail strip in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, where I rented an office on the second floor of a commercial building (above Riley’s Roast Beef and other stores).

Commercial building in Allston
This early 20th-century postcard shows the building at the corner of Brighton Avenue and Harvard Street in Allston where I rented an office on the second floor in the 1980s. Riley’s Roast Beef—the owner also owned the building—occupied the storefront at the corner, a former Liggett’s drugstore.

I went to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and found they had 60+ years of city directories in large, bound, red-covered volumes on a shelf in the microfilm room. (These, and others like them, didn’t become available online until much later.) I went back multiple times, copying the names of businesses into a notebook. Back in my apartment, I typed them into a file on the first computer I ever had.

Printout of research
Part of the printout of my research showing changes in one Allston retail address over the years

That’s when it hit me: my 15-year-old self had it right. My true calling was as a librarian. I enrolled in the Master of Library Science program at Simmons College (now Simmons University) in 1990.

One of my first two classes that year was Allen Smith’s class on reference services. I still remember an early assignment: find the name of a Massachusetts woman who invented a machine for manufacturing flat-bottomed paper bags. You’ll find stories saying it was invented by a man, he told us, but find the woman who really invented it. And down the rabbit hole I went.

(I would encounter that woman, Margaret Knight, the holder of dozens of patents, again, down another rabbit hole, 30 years later.)

My first job after graduating from Simmons in 1992 was at the Brighton branch of the Boston Public Library. I met folks at the Brighton-Allston Historical Society and gave them a copy of my Allston research on floppy disk  though they did not have a computer. (The floppy disk disappeared, but years later I found they still had a printout that I gave them.)

I worked at several job in several kinds of libraries in a rapidly changing field in my 29 years as a librarian before retiring as Head of Liaison and Instruction Services at the Boston University Libraries in June 2021. I spent much of my library career teaching undergraduates how to do research, including the art, the joy, and the value of going down rabbit holes. 

My own rabbit hole explorations have long gone beyond my work as a librarian. I’ve been the volunteer head of the historical society in Brookline, Massachusetts, where I live, since 2009. (One of my current projects, an echo of my librarian origin story, involves documenting the history of the stores in Coolidge Corner, the town’s main commercial district.)

I’m also helping prolific author Paul Dickson with both a new edition of his Dickson’s Baseball Dictionary and a forthcoming World War II dictionary.

Print encyclopedias have largely given way to online versions, including the crowdsourced Wikipedia. I reluctantly tossed my parents’ 1961 set of the World Book Encyclopedia when my mother moved out of her apartment to assisted living in 2012. My 1987 Encyclopedia Americana went up to our attic not long after. But I have my own little bookshelf of specialized reference books — on history, language, architecture, baseball, and more — next to my desk, with more scattered around our house. 

And I’ve been an active participant in Wikipedia, expanding, updating, correcting, and otherwise contributing to that popular successor to those venerable print encyclopedias. I’ve even created three Wikipedia biographies from scratch, documenting the lives and accomplishments of men and women I first “met” going down rabbit holes of my own.

So, here’s to libraries and reference sources of every kind, and to the resources, the services, the people, and — most of all — the spirit that captured Charles M. Blow and me long ago and continues to inform, intrigue, and inspire us, and others, today.

TTFN, Info Lit — See Ya’ in the Rabbit Hole

In 2004, soon after starting a new job at the Boston College Libraries, I was put on an Information Literacy Task Force. I’d been a librarian for 12 years at that point — at the Boston Public Library, the Harvard Business School, and a non-profit organization, among other places — but I’d never heard the term “information literacy.”

It seemed like a buzzword (buzzphrase?). I wasn’t really sure what it meant. 

I took a playful poke at the uncertainty, composing a poem called What is Information Literacy?, comprised of eight anagrams of “information literacy.”(“Formality in creation?”; “Merry citational info?”; “A faintly moronic rite?”; “Non-literary CIA motif?”; and more).

Now, as I get set to retire June 1st as Head of Liaison & Instruction Services at Boston University — 17 years and 14 MBTA stops removed from those early days at Boston College — I’m saying goodbye to a professional connection to “info lit” that ended up occupying much of my career.

But while the profession may be ending, the connection remains. So does the uncertainty — and that’s a good thing.

Rabbit Hole
Down the Rabbit Hole. Abelardo Morell, 1998

I tell undergraduates — and their professors — that research is as much about discovering questions as it is about finding answers. I tell them I call my own method of research “directed stumbling.” I tell them to “Get lost,” to go down the rabbit hole, to find their own path through research. And they get it. They really do.

I’ll miss working with undergrads and with the library staff and faculty partners who’ve become friends and colleagues over the years.  But I’ve still got plenty of rabbit holes to go down. Stay tuned and watch this space for more. 

A Place on the Map

I have a large collection of thematic atlases, about a hundred or so of them, mostly on different historical themes. Now, for the first time, I’m acknowledged in one.

It’s The Atlas of Boston History, edited by Nancy S. Seasholes and published by the University of Chicago Press in 2019.

My contribution is a minor one: on Plate 20, Irish Immigration, 1700s-1855, there an image of Burgess Alley, an Irish tenement in the Fort Hill section of Boston. It’s from an 1849 report on cholera in Boston. The late Ruth-Ann Harris, a professor of Irish Studies at Boston College who contributed that section of the atlas, was looking for a tenement image and I pointed her to this one. (I can’t say exactly when that was, but it was a long time ago; Ruth-Ann died in 2012, the same year I left the BC Libraries.)

Illustration from Report of the Committee of Internal Health on the Asiatic cholera, together with a report of the city physician on the Cholera Hospital, 1849

This atlas, by the way, is a terrific one. The maps are excellent. The text is concise and nicely integrated with the maps. Illustrations are carefully chosen. All elements work together to provide a narrative on Boston themes ranging from exploration to immigration to economy, ethnicity, politics, culture, infrastructure and more.

Here, for example, is what’s covered in just one section of the atlas, with nine of the 57 plates and accompanying text and illustrations.

Page from the table of contents of the Atlas of Boston History

I’ve long been intrigued by thematic maps and atlases. I think of them as an example of what I call “non-verbal narrative,” although they can include verbal elements on the maps themselves, their legends, or accompanying text. (Baseball statistics and baseball cards are another example I have a personal connection to, but that will have to wait for another post.)

The maps, individually and collectively, tell stories of time and place, of people and societies, each with a particular focus.

My collection of historical atlases began with a 1974 printing of the ninth edition of Shepherd’s Historical Atlas, a fairly Eurocentric book first published by William R. Shepherd in 1911. (You can view the maps from both the 1911 and 1923 editions online via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection of the University of Texas Libraries.)

And now I have one with my name in it.

Some of my atlases, as shown on LibraryThing

Days of Future Past*

On February 25th I’ll be presenting my talk about Commonwealth Avenue’s Automobile Row for the Brighton-Allston Historical Society at the Brighton Marine Center on Warren Street. It’s a version of a talk I gave last September at WBUR’s CitySpace and again at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum earlier this month.

But while this presentation is a repeat performance of my latest talk it is also a return to my own past, to my origin story (so to speak) as both a librarian and a local historian.

Back in the late 1980s I lived in Allston and had my own small public relations firm, working out of a shabby office on the second floor of this building at the corner of Brighton Avenue and Harvard Street. Riley’s Roast Beef—the owner also owned the building—occupied the storefront at the corner, a former Liggett’s drugstore.

Inspired, perhaps, by this postcard—I can’t remember for sure—I became interested in the history of the retail district that ran north and south on Harvard Street and east and west on Brighton Avenue. I began visiting the microfilm room at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square where they had city directories dating back to the 1860s.

From 1930 to 1981, each year’s directory—they were large volumes bound in red hardcovers—included a reverse directory showing listings street-by-street, address-by-address, in addition to the longer-standing alphabetical listings.

Excerpt from the 1930 Boston city directory

Over several months of visits, I painstakingly copied the information into a notebook. Back in Allston, I typed the info into my computer. When I was done, I put it all on a floppy disk and gave it to Bill Marchione at the Brighton-Allston Historical Society. (Bill was and is an inspiration to me.) BAHS didn’t even have a computer, but Bill graciously accepted the disk.

About a year-and-a-half ago I contacted BAHS to see if, by chance, they still had the floppy disk. They didn’t, but they did find a printout of the database that I gave them, with some notes. Nice to know I was so organized back then.

Part of the printout showing changes in one Allston retail address over the years

Some time later as I was thinking about new career directions, I realized how much I enjoyed working in the library. I started to investigate getting a master’s in library science. I had informational interviews with librarians at historical organizations and newspapers. (I had been a newspaper reporter for a few years after college.)

I got my MLS from Simmons College in 1991. My first job as a librarian was at the Brighton Branch of the Boston Public Library. I joined the board of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society, though I had moved to Roslindale in 1990, and stayed on the board until I started a new job in 1993.

A few years later I moved with my family to Brookline where my interest in local history continued to grow. I joined the Brookline Historical Society board in 2006 and became president three years later. I’ve even been working on a Coolidge Corner version of that long-ago Allston retail project that got it all started.

Portion of a spreadsheet showing stores on Harvard Street in the 1920s

So, back to Allston and Brighton it is, and to my days of future past.


* When the phrase “Days of Future Past” popped into my head as the title for this post, I was (showing my age and past musical tastes) thinking of the old Moody Blues album. Little did I know that most people (and Google’s search) associate the phrase with the 2014 X-Men movie.

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