The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division.
As Rob Casper and Peter Armenti have introduced themselves in previous blogs, I’ll try to tell you a little about myself here. My name is Abby Yochelson, and I am the English and American Literature Reference specialist in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Rob told you about his grandmother, so it seems appropriate to tell you about mine.
My grandmother lived well into her 90s with a sharp mind and a love of reading. Unfortunately, her memory about books she had read decades ago got a bit fuzzy. She was delighted when I announced I was enrolled in library school with the aim of becoming a reference librarian in a public library. Once I began a practicum in a small branch library of the Fairfax County Public Library System, she put me to work! She had read a series of popular novels in the 1930s, and could remember some of the characters’ names but not the author or book titles. At the library, I found reference books listing characters’ names and quickly discovered the Jalna series or Whiteoak Chronicles by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche.
“The Soul of the Violin” proved more difficult. My grandmother had won an oratory award in school with this poem when she was fifteen, but by the time she asked me about it she was only certain of its title. In library school I had learned about Granger’s Index to Poetry, a wonderful, multi-volumed source for finding poems by title, author, first line, or subject. At both my local library in Washington, D.C. and at the Fairfax branch library, I had perused volumes of Granger’s. I couldn’t locate my grandmother’s exact title, but I brought home poem after poem with violin in the title. None were correct.
Once I became a reference librarian in the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress—where I still can be found twenty-three years later—I discovered there were many more volumes to the Granger’s Index, and they went back to 1904. The first few volumes also covered recitations, a popular activity in schools and communities in the earlier part of the 20th century. I found a copy of “The Soul of the Violin” as a prose piece recitation and brought it home to my grandmother. A reference success after many years of hunting!
Her final task for me was to find a book titled Howard Had Two Daughters by someone named Zelda something-or-other. The card catalog in Fairfax failed me as there was nothing under that title and no way to search by an author’s first name. I discovered the Library of Congress began cataloging online by 1968 and that keyword searching could solve the problem. A search of Zelda and two daughters provided the actual title: Herman Had Two Daughters by Zelda Popkin.
These quests proved to be excellent training for my career here. Virtually all libraries receive numerous questions about books, short stories, and poems in which the complete information is unknown or something is just a little “off.” Look for a future post with fun examples of these sorts of questions and resources for answering them. We don’t always have the success rate I had with my grandmother, but we have made some patrons very happy after long searches!