Lost in FRASER? Librarians Can Map the Way!

July 10, 2024

FRASER, the St. Louis Fed’s unique digital library of U.S. economic, financial and banking history, can provide many answers with a few taps of the keyboard. One can peruse the proceedings of the Bretton Woods conference in July 1944 or read “breaking news” about the Panic of 1873 in the pages of The Commercial and Financial Chronicle.

But some tough questions may require the skills and training of a nondigital resource: FRASER’s crack team of librarians. Small but mighty, this team can address questions that readers have about this huge repository of documents related to U.S. economic history, which was first created in 2004.

The Honored Legacy of the Reference Desk

Before the emergence of Google, it was common for researchers, journalists and students to dial up a local library to consult the reference desk. Though many libraries still offer this service, it’s often via email or text rather than a phone call.

So why does a digital resource like FRASER continue to offer a reference desk?

“FRASER is a library. And part of what a library does is not just collect material but make sure that people can find and use that knowledge,” said Genevieve Podleski, digital projects librarian at the St. Louis Fed. “That’s our purpose.”

A person holds an open book while standing next to shelves of books.

Jona Whipple searches for information in the St. Louis Fed’s library.

If a search on the FRASER website doesn’t yield an answer, you can reach out to the librarians. On the “About” drop-down menu on FRASER’s main webpage, there is a simple contact button. Open it to submit a question.

Of course, the librarians can’t provide an answer to every question: “Did my great aunt leave behind some old bank shares that might be worth something?” No, the FRASER librarians can’t answer this type of query. (Yes, people do ask things like this.)

But if you have a research question related to economic history, particularly material concerning banking and the Federal Reserve, then the librarians may be able to help.For more information about making a query, see this 2018 Inside FRASER blog post: “Librarian Life: The FRASER Reference Desk.” And if the answer isn’t available through FRASER, they can point out where you might be able to find it, such as in another archive or library.

Providing context when submitting the question also helps the librarians in their search. “For example, if you’re doing genealogical research and you want a list of bank directors, I might point you in one direction,” Podleski said. “And if you’re an economic historian working on correspondent bank relationships in 1924, I might send you in a different direction.”

Digital Collection vs. Physical Storage

One reason you might need a librarian is that FRASER has a lot of material in storage, all waiting to be digitalized. In fact, you could think of FRASER as an iceberg. Just above the waterline is the digital collection—visible and accessible to all. But below the waterline is a much larger mass of files, documents, newspapers and books in physical storage.

A woman wearing white gloves with her face illuminated uses a machine to digitize material from a book while people work in cubicles in the background.

Jona Whipple digitizes material for FRASER, the St. Louis Fed’s digital library of U.S. economic, financial and banking history.

As part of their jobs, the librarians are busy digitizing this material. Some documents will enter the digital realm this week; others will take many years. The intent is to eventually digitize all these items. But until that happens, accessing the material means the librarians have to negotiate crowded bookshelves and dig through stacks of document boxes. The breadth of material even surprises the staff on occasion.

“I still sometimes come across things that make me think, ‘Oh, we have that!’” said Jona Whipple, coordinator of digital history and archives at the St. Louis Fed.

Though the materials focus on U.S. economic history, the queries can be global. One recent request came from a professor of architectural history in Australia, who was researching institutional architecture styles. The professor wanted to know about the history of the Federal Reserve Bank buildings, and what laws or regulations outline how these buildings were built.

“We definitely had to do some digging there,” Podleski said. “But it was neat because that was a question from somebody very far out of our normal sphere, but who was still doing what is basically Fed history.”

The librarians also get many interesting questions from people using FRED, the St. Louis Fed’s signature economic database. For example, someone might pull up a FRED chart for an economic series that starts in 1946 and then wonder whether older data exist.

“So we go and do the digging to find out whether there were data that preceded that FRED time series,” Whipple said. “It might be under another title, or it might have been another entity that produced the data before the FRED chart started.”

And this relationship flows both ways. The reader might find data in FRASER that ended years ago but want something more recent. In some cases, the FRASER librarians can direct the users to FRED for updated data.

Sometimes the pursuit of the answer can be frustrating. Whipple recalled helping a historian who was seeking information on the board of directors of an Illinois bank that closed in 1905. “That was like going down the rabbit hole,” she quipped. She was able to find information about the bank’s founder and how that person’s malfeasance actually caused the bank to fail. Yet the membership of that board remained elusive. “There’s all this drama, but none of the information that the patron was asking,” she said. “Sometimes when searching, there’s a lot of stuff to get lost in.”

Yet these queries don’t merely help the user; they also help shape the FRASER digital collection. “Some of the questions give us the opportunity to go digging through our physical collection,” Whipple said. This gives the librarians the opportunity to assess the historical value and user interest in those documents. As a result, they may decide to bump up the material in the queue for digitalization.

“So every time you ask a research question, you’re affecting how FRASER evolves, which I think is a cool and unusual relationship that we have with our users,” Podleski said.


  1. For more information about making a query, see this 2018 Inside FRASER blog post: “Librarian Life: The FRASER Reference Desk.”


About the Author
Greg Cancelada
Greg Cancelada

Greg Cancelada is a coordinator with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division and managing editor of the On the Economy blog.

Greg Cancelada
Greg Cancelada

Greg Cancelada is a coordinator with the St. Louis Fed External Engagement and Corporate Communications Division and managing editor of the On the Economy blog.

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This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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