History Detectives: There would be no show without libraries

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Interview with Jennifer Silverman, Series Producer; Photos reprinted with permission of the History Detectives.

PBS's show History Detectives kicked off its 9th Season this past June 21, 2011 on a new night (Tuesday) and a new time (8:00EST/7:00CST).

Series Producer, Jennifer Silverman took some time with I Love Libraries to share insights to how the show and each mystery comes together.  She also shares how libraries and librarians are almost as essential to the show itself as the origins of mysteries artifacts being solved.

How would you describe History Detective?

History Detectives (HD) uses objects as a way to probe into American History by solving a mystery around that object and along the way unraveling stories about our country's past.  The objects or artifacts might be a letter, a clock or even a golf club. 

In its current season, a contributor shares a small Pyrex  test tube containing metal shavings.  The owner of this item wants to know if the shaving might be from a Civil War Cannon. Readers will want to watch the entire episode to learn about the metal's makeup as well as the symbolic meaning the cannons had to the Confederacy beyond simply being used as a weapon.   

Each story that HD uncovers starts with something as small as a piece of metal and takes its viewers on a story with many directions  and along the way illuminates a part of American History. The show hosts, mystery detectives in their own professions, along with the on the ground detectives, libraries and librarians around the country, come together to solve each mysteries.  Without libraries and librarians, there would be no History Detectives.

How do you select which mystery to work on?

Each year HD gets hundreds of submissions through its web site from viewers who have an object they have always wanted to know more about. Three other ways story ideas come into HD include:

  • HD researches conduct their own outreach, going after stories they hear about in the news.
  • In the middle of researching one story, a lead will share another story about an object and this will turn into its own potential mystery for the show.
  • The HD hosts contribute to HD stories through artifacts and objects they come across in their professional work. 

There is considerable criteria involved for a story submission to make it into an actual episode. From having to be solvable, appeal to the audience and the history detectives' own interest in wanting to investigate the story, and the story behind the mysterious object has to tie back to American History.

HD Fact: While each episode is approximately 60 minutes long containing three stories, solving the mystery of just one object can actually take years. 

How are libraries / librarians involved in the show?

Libraries and Librarians are vital to the show. They help HD:

  • By serving as the location for filming the show. Given the detectives are doing their original research in libraries, it makes sense to film the show in libraries.
  • Solve the mysteries.  Librarians across the country in all types of libraries help with researching the stories behind each object and its role in American History. 
  • Serve as the show's Troops on the Ground. Often the information needed to solve a mystery is not on the internet, digitized yet or organized in a database where it can be looked up. Often it's in a crumbling book or decaying newspaper on a library shelf in a small community. It's up to the local librarians to unearth these hidden treasures and find the information needed to solve an object's mystery. 
  • Stretch HD's small budget.  Being a publicly funded show, HD doesn't have the budget to send its staff to all parts of the country to do original research. The show relies on the aid of the local librarians to do the on the ground work for them.
  • Contribute to the story behind the object. By tapping into the local librarian who usually knows more about an object's history than what's found in a book or newspaper, it's here where folklore and gossip around an object is discovered.

HD Fact:  When preparing to shoot on location at a library, HD staff will often contact the local librarian first for inside knowledge about the community, travel, accommodations etc. A librarian always has first-hand knowledge of the best places to stay and the best food to eat!

Tell us more about the researchers and librarians behind the show, and the tools they use:

HD has between 7 to 10 researchers and archivists on staff working on stories each year.

Libraries from all over the country have contributed to HD. With HD based in New York, the local library community (Upstate NY, Columbia University, NY University & the entire NY Library System) provides a wealth of support, staff time  and information.

In an episode from last year, one of the mystery objects was a 1860's Copperhead Snake History Detectives host Eduardo Pagán researches at the Los Angeles County library to investigate this business card for Club Continental, a Los Angeles underworld hot spot during the 30s. Our contributor asks Eduardo to find out why his father's name is on a card for this notorious club. Credit: Charley GallayCane.  A librarian, the Circulation Associate, from Iowa Wesleyan College did a lot of the work behind this story. We used some great libraries this season – the Stark Center for Physical Fitness and Culture helped us solve a story about a set of 1920’s exercise records (an amazing resource for sports research), while the Boston Athenaeum’s collection of Loyalists reference materials helped crack the case of a mysterious 1775 almanac. In a story we did about a 1930’s business card for the glamorous Club Continental night club, the LA Country Library librarian was incredibly helpful hunting through old LA phone books so we track the trail of our club and the card’s owner.

Each of the researchers and librarians contribute to solving the mysteries by using the following tools and techniques:

  • Listening and asking questions. Asking the right questions at the start of an investigation can be the key to a successful outcome.
  • After identifying a story, they gather as much information about it as they can, from searching the internet to interviewing experts in the field.
  • Local librarians provide additional information by scanning through newsletters, books and original materials within their collections.
  • The librarian will also take their own digital scans of an original item in their collection and send HD copies of these images which again save considerably on cost.

What's been one of your most favorite cases to work on? 

The family who owns this doll says their ancestors used it to smuggle medicine past the Northern blockade during the Civil War. Photo Credit: Ann McGarryThis season's episode on a Tattered Almanac from  1775 (airing September 6). In the margins are hand written notes forming a diary with entries noting battles fought on April 17 & April 19. The owner wanted to know who wrote it. Unraveling the clues used a tremendous amount of library work to find original 18th century resources which could confirm information about the book.

Scientists also play a part in solving the mysteries and again having a small budget, HD relies on the generous donation of time from librarians in medical and scientific organizations. In one episode a story centered around a doll from the civil war which they had drug tested in a crime lab for traces of morphine or quinine. The mystery was to learn if the doll had been part of a drug smuggling ring.  Another story focused on a giant stick club with faint writing, which once processed with ultraviolet light by the staff at the Morgan Library, the paint/ink became visible to reveal the name Teddy Roosevelt.

And sometimes the work behind a mystery will reveal that there is no real mystery.  An object possibly from the Massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, 1890 riddled with bullet holes was tested for blood by a New York only to expose it was just paint.  

What has been one of the most  popular mysteries HD has told?

Last year, in the story called "Korean War Letter" we had letter written from a solider to his family during his time in the Korean War.  The soldier's life had been saved by a fellow comrade who jumped on top of a grenade. The daughter of the soldier who's life had been spared wanted to learn more about her father's hero and his family, particularly if the solider had ever gotten a medal of valor for his efforts. One part of the mystery solved was that the soldier did not receive a medal, which brought in a flurry of emails from viewers wanting to know how they could help get this solider his recognition.

For the amateur home history detective, what suggestions would you have for them?

  • Visit HD's new web site (http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives), which has tons of new investigative technique resources and information on how to be your own history detective.
  • If you have a family object or artifact, start by taking it to your local library and show it the librarian.

Besides your web site, how else can people stay informed or get involved with HD?

HD Fact: The Host Detectives have been known to Post and Tweet themselves.

List how readers could contact HD if they had any follow up questions?

Photo credits & captions (in order of appearance on page):

1. History Detectives host Elyse Luray helps Robert Sarco of Hollywood, South Carolina figure out whether the metal shavings in this tube came from the cannon that fired the first shot of the Civil War. Credit:  Margot Ahlquist

2. History Detectives host Eduardo Pagán researches at the Los Angeles County library to investigate this business card for Club Continental, a Los Angeles underworld hot spot during the 30s. Our contributor asks Eduardo to find out why his father's name is on a card for this notorious club. Credit: Charley Gallay

3. The family who owns this doll says their ancestors used it to smuggle medicine past the Northern blockade during the Civil War. Photo Credit: Ann McGarry

4. History Detectives host Tukufu Zuberi investigates whether these 1920s albums were the first to use the phonograph to promote fitness for women? He researches at the Stark Center for Physical Fitness and Culture on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin. Photo Credit:  Sarah Kerver

5. Photo from I Love Libraries homepage - The notes scribbled in the margins of this 1775 Almanac take us inside the lives of a family during the Revolution.  How did conflicting loyalties strain their relationships? Research at the Boston Athenaeum helped crack this case. Credit: Brian Babineau