Darien Library creating town obituary database
On a weekly basis, through calls or emails, the Darien Library gets inquiries from people looking for information on someone who died.
“It is our most frequent inquiry call,” said Sally Ijams, who is head of knowledge and learning services at the library.
Due to all the inquiries, the library has decided to undertake a massive project — it is creating an online accessible database available to anyone seeking information on a death.
The project is expected to be completed within the next year, and will be accessible on the library’s website.
“From whatever location you are at, you will be able go on our website and type in the name of the person, a death date, or the year the person died, and instantly locate that person’s obituary,” Ijams said.
There has always been a need for this project, according to Ijams, who has been a librarian for 30 years.
“People want to look up obituaries of family members, or they are doing their genealogy, or there is a big family gathering that’s coming together,” she said.
Obituary inquiries can take anywhere from a half hour to a few days, according to Ijams.
Often, they involve a great deal of detective work since the inquirer may have misinformation or not enough information.
“They might say, ‘We think she died in the spring of ’63. Can you help us out?’” Ijams said.
On other occasions, the inquirer knows the day of the week the person died, but not the date, “so we have to figure it out, looking at old calendars,” she added.
Challenges arise with women who have gotten married and changed their last name — especially from earlier decades when wives were referred to as “Mrs.” but with their husband’s full name.
“If we come across an obit from Mrs. John Smith, it will refer to her as Mrs. Smith but it never gives her first name because she was a wife,” Ijams said.
“We often look through city directories to find out what street they lived on,” she said.
For each of these inquiries, “we would have to go through every single issue until we can find it,” Ijams said. “We are reinventing the wheel every single time.”
To tackle such a project, the library has reached out to volunteers and has a “small solid core of people” who have agreed to take it on, Ijams said.
Volunteers come in on their own time and work for two or three hours a week.
“We based our project on the obituary database at the Ferguson Library in Stamford,” Ijams said.
Research involves reading old newspapers “and often looking at microfilm or a digitized version of the microfilm, and it’s hard to get a clear look at what an image is,” Ijams said.
Volunteers must read every single newspaper in the library, dating back to 1902. Newspapers include The Darien Times, Darien Review, Darien News, and Darien News Review.
Marlene “Pete” Eldridge, 84, who has lived in town since 1960, is one of the volunteers.
“I see the newspaper in the computer. Then, I look for the obits on a program on the computer. They appear on different pages. I then enter the name, death date, date of the paper, and name of the paper,” said Eldridge, who is retired from an 18-year career in technical services where she ordered and processed books.
“I enjoy it,” said Eldridge, in regard to the project. “It’s fun to do. The best part is I get to look at the old front pages of the paper.”
Darien was “a smaller town back then,” she said.
The Darien Review was “really a small town paper,” she said. “They printed almost everything.”
While working on the project, Eldridge has read articles about fires, family visits, and inheritances, and a regular list of new books at the library.
“Some of it is extremely funny,” she said. “Some teenager would run away from home and they’d put it on the front page. ‘Suzie Q hasn’t been seen. Here is her Social Security number.’ On the front page!”
The newspaper also provided a detailed description of how people died, including suicides and car wrecks, according to Eldridge.
“It was different world,” she said. “I was living here back then. I remember a lot of this.”
Darien resident John Driscoll, 73, is also volunteering on the project. He has lived in town for 27 years and is a member of the Middlesex Genealogical Society.
“I’m having a good time with this,” said Driscoll, noting that more than half of the people he is indexing died “younger than I am now. They were in their 50s and 60s.”
“I’m doing something that’s really worthwhile for family historians. There is a lot more information in an obit than just death information,” he added. “You find out who they are related to, and if they left any spouse or children or cousins. You can find any organization they belonged to and what they did for a living.”
He added that reading microfilm “is tedious.”
“Someone will be logging in my obituary before I finish the project,” he joked.
“You find a lot of interesting stories in the papers as you are going along,” Driscoll said. “Every now and then, something will catch your eye.”
To date, the obit volunteer team currently has 13,600 records logged into the database.
“The whole project has opened up a window into the history of Darien from a perspective you wouldn’t expect,” Ijams said.
“We are reading the obituaries of the people that were the movers and the shakers of this town,” she said, adding that many times, she has also found the obits of those people’s cooks and drivers.
“It’s a legacy project,” Ijams said. “It’s a gift from librarians to librarians.”
Volunteers are still needed to work on the library’s obituary project. For more information, call the library at 203-655-1234.