The Photo That Launched HPL's Local History Database

The library director was insistent: she needed a photo of the three-tiered fountain that once stood in front of the Rock County Courthouse in Janesville, Wisconsin--and she needed it as quickly as possible. It was around 2001, and she was heading a committee to turn a green space between the library and the Rock River into a public park with sculpture, trees, park benches, and--possibly--a fountain. If the park were to include a fountain, how about one that would recall the one formerly at the Rock County Courthouse?

As usual, the Reference staff was eager to please. The fountain was no longer extant at the Courthouse, so we couldn't just take a picture of it. We asked long-time residents of Janesville if they remembered what the fountain looked like. We pored through published books of photographs about Janesville. We combed through 12 volumes of photographs of Janesville that had been donated by local photograph collector, Lowell "Bud" Gruver. We spent hours and hours, days and days, searching for such a photo.

And, finally, we were successful.

An amusing photo of druggist George King, standing jauntily in his summer hat, vest, and shirtsleeves, beside his handmade canoe or kayak, clearly showed the three-tiered fountain spurting water.

Another photo turned up in a colleague's private postcard collection--some of which were later digitized on the library's website.

The reference staff had been successful: we had found the image that our director had asked for.

But we weren't happy. Why not? Because the search had taken so long to accomplish. It frustrated us that we couldn't immediately put our hands on images we knew were probably in our collection.

And thus, the Local History Database came into being.

One of the part-time librarians -- who happened to be a professional freelance indexer in her other life -- decided to apply her indexing skills to her work at the library. With the help of the library's computer technician and her colleagues, she developed an online index to local history items in the library.

Articles from the local newspaper; photographs from the "Gruver Collection" as well as from books about Janesville and Rock County; pamphlets donated to or collected by the library; memoirs and reports about Janesville; information about historical houses and buildings and local people: all of these kinds of materials could be indexed online -- and accessed by anyone, anywhere, in seconds.

A work in progress, the Local History Database now contains over 31,000 entries on the topics above. It inspired other library-made indexes as well: one on Janesville High School Yearbooks and one on obituaries from the Janesville Gazette.

These online indexes not only help the reference librarians meet their patrons' information needs quickly--but make us look smart as well.

That's what we like!

And the three-tiered fountain in the park?

It has yet to be built.

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