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In Praise of Detective Peter, or How We Get By With a Little Help from Our Friends

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The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference Specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room.

Peter Armenti in front of The Frost Place in Franconia, NH.
Peter Armenti in front of The Frost Place in Franconia, NH.

Peter Armenti, frequent blogger here and a wonderful reference librarian, has dazzled a collection of literary librarians across the country. As the current cliché goes, he thinks outside the box to great success! Peter and I have both written about the kinds of questions we receive from patrons via our Ask a Librarian service. We help people find poems or novels when they can’t remember an author or title, locate literary criticism for a middle school paper or a Ph.D. thesis, or perhaps help them find their own poems published in an amateur poetry anthology. Sometimes those patrons are other librarians, although they don’t always write through the Ask a Librarian service.

Literature librarians at academic libraries throughout the country belong to the Literatures in English Section (LES) of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) of the American Library Association (ALA)—quite the alphabet soup! LES members have a listserv—a means of posting information of interest about conferences, new reference sources, relevant job openings, and much more. They are resourceful and knowledgeable librarians, but everyone gets stumped at some point or just needs a few additional suggestions and that’s when we rely on the collective brilliance. The LES list is excellent for posting questions and receiving extraordinary answers. I’ve posted questions and answered a few—usually because the Library of Congress is the only library having the needed material!

Recently a question was posted from a librarian seeking a short story, “The Red Kimono,” by Adele Rogers St. John that appeared in a magazine called The Black Cat. The Black Cat was published from 1895-1923, but no one seems to have issues later than 1920. Much of the magazine has been digitized and is available at The HathiTrust, an ever-growing repository of searchable material digitized by libraries, but the story did not appear in any of those issues. I went down to our stacks and searched the tables of contents for every issue the Library of Congress held, just in case the digitization project had missed something. Librarians across the country wrote with suggestions of indexes, variations on the authors’ name, and possibilities of locations for issues after 1920.

It turned out that the search for this story had a long and failed history. The story was made into a movie, and the subject sued the filmmaker for breach of privacy. Both film and legal scholars have looked for this story unsuccessfully for decades. Someone contacted Adela Rogers St. Johns’ daughter, who remembered the story being published in The Black Cat. St. Johns herself wrote a memoir, The Honeycomb, stating that she sold the story to The Black Cat. And someone was searching the LA County Courthouse records of the trial hoping to find the crucial citation.

Enter Peter Armenti as the detective who solved the mystery! While everyone else was fixated on finding The Black Cat, Peter took the question in a different direction and decided to search a couple of our subscription newspaper databases—wonderful sources for reviews, society gossip, and advertisements of the era. He searched the phrase “red kimono” and the keyword “Adela” in the Newspaper Archive database and found three ads for a story “Gabrielle of the Red Kimono” in the November 1924 issue of The Smart Set. And the Library of Congress had that issue on microfilm, so Peter was able to supply the story to the librarian who originally posted the question. Just as with eyewitness accounts of events, memories can be flawed—it took Peter thinking outside the box and using the wonders of full-text searching to discover the true title and publication of the story.

Click here to read “Gabrielle of the Red Kimono.”

Kudos to Peter for his brilliant detective work were posted on the LES list for days. Amanda Rust from Northeastern University summed it all up, “I’d just like to marvel at the expertise and effort LES can bring to a question like this! It’s really enjoyable to see, even if just from the sidelines—I think everyone deserves some applause here.” Truly we manage to get by (or even do our jobs brilliantly) with a little help from our friends!


Comments (3)

  1. Congratulations, Peter, on another example of your wizardry as a literary researcher extraordinaire!
    Patricia Gray

  2. Great story! Such a good example for students and teachers about how newspapers in particular can provide clues for furthering other searches…

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