Friday, May 22, 2015

The Power of a Librarian

Today's post is a guest post from my colleague Kathy Parker. Kathy is the School Library Media Consultant for the NC Department of Public Instruction, as well as a former English teacher and school librarian. Kathy shared this amazing story with our team last month at a meeting, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I asked Kathy to write a guest blog post for Memorial Day. I cannot think of a better time to share this story. Wishing you all a wonderful Memorial Day. Please don't forget to remember those that have given their lives and to thank those that have served.

When I meet people for the first time, invariably the conversation turns to our work. After learning that I’m a school library consultant, they ask some variation of the same question, “What do librarians do now that there’s Google?” I typically embark on an impassioned, verbal treatise about librarians closing achievement gaps, bridging the digital divide, leading others to information, and I watch as their eyes glaze over. I imagine they hear my voice as Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Wah-Wah Wah-Wah.” So the next time someone asks me that question, I’m going to share this personal story instead…

Usually after work, I’m welcomed home by the sight of my neighbor, Harry, sitting on his stoop. I make my way over and plop myself on his steps, scaring away Meow-Meow, the stray cat that’s taken up residence by his side. When it’s chilly, I caution him that he’s going to catch a cold from the nippy air. He scoffs, dismissively waves his hand, and insists, “I got enough shots in the war to kill anything. That’s why I’m so old.” Then he reminds me that he survived Wisconsin winters and did it without electric heat! Point taken. Harry’s such a fixture of my neighborhood that I sometimes forget he hasn’t spent all of his 93 years across the street.

My Two Favorite Veterans: Harry with my husband, David, on Memorial Day 2012. 

This past April, as we were sitting on his stoop enjoying the sunshine, Harry mentioned the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Okinawa. He rarely talks about World War II, but the anniversary had him reflecting on his service. He mentioned to me that he had buried a buddy of his on the island in 1945. They had become fast friends in the war, and Harry wondered aloud if his body was ever recovered and returned to his family. He said that at the time, when a soldier was killed, “you put his dog tags between his teeth, buried him quick, and moved on.” But of course, Harry couldn’t really move on. For 70 years, the whereabouts of his friend’s body weighed on Harry’s mind. Harry half jokingly insisted that the Okinawan jungle grew up so fast that you’d carve a path, turn around, and find that the trail was already overgrown. He feared that his friend’s grave had never been found.

So being the “information warrior” that I am, my mind immediately began brainstorming resources to investigate. And guess what, I couldn’t find the answer Harry needed just by searching Google! Although my Google search located casualty lists and memorial records that referred to his friend and directed me to some fee for service sites with possible leads, I did not initially find anything confirming a burial location. When I reached out to my network of fellow librarians, one from Wisconsin struck gold! The information that Harry needed was “buried” in a Minnesota university’s digitized newspaper database. After 70 years, I had an answer for Harry.

The next time I plopped on Harry’s stoop, I said, “Look what I came across on the computer. Do you see any interesting articles in this old paper?” It took him a minute as he was initially drawn to the ads for familiar products from back in his day. I eagerly waited as his eyes wandered across the page, then my heart flip-flopped as his face lit up when he recognized his friend’s name in the headline: Alden Synstad Reburial Rites Set For Friday. Reading the article from April 13, 1949, Harry finally learned that his buddy’s remains had indeed made their way home.

After 70 years, librarians gave peace of mind to a World War II veteran. That’s what librarians do!