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The Departed: One Library’s Innovative Cemetery Project

by on November 10, 2015

For quite some time, public libraries across the country have dealt with having to answer the same overused question: What does the future of public libraries look like in a technology savvy 21st century? Well, to be honest, the future looks bright. Libraries are not only educational institutions that offer a plethora of books, programs, magazines, and databases at no cost; they are a commons, a safe haven “and they are dynamic, versatile community centers”[1] where patrons feel comfortable experiencing everything libraries offer. Technology in libraries is at the cusp of a technological revolution available to the public that is sweeping across the world. So what can public libraries do with such advanced technology? One library decided it would inventory and map out every single grave at a local historic cemetery situated in downtown Pharr, Texas. Pharr is a border town that sits only eight miles north of the Rio Grande.

To accomplish this feat, the Pharr Memorial Library (PML) required assistance from the city’s GIS and Engineering departments. The project was spearheaded by the library’s Reference department, which invested almost a year’s worth of time coordinating information on 1,500 plots and 2,230 deceased individuals. Adolfo Garcia, PML’s Director, stated, “We’re interested in archiving information as librarians and making that information available to the public so people can search to know if their relative is there.”[2] Photos of every headstone were taken and will be used as a search tool for patrons interested in not only searching to see where their relative was buried, but what the headstone looks like.

The idea came about after multiple library patrons visited the library’s local archives to sift through two boxes of cemetery paperwork that included the names of all individuals buried at the Guadalupe Cemetery. The main problem the library faced was the time it took for the Reference Librarian to sit with inquirers until he finally come across the sought out relative. There was no structure to the paperwork as an earlier novice project simply recorded names in a primitive fashion. The Library Director and Reference Librarian brainstormed options for providing this information to the public in a more suitable and reliable way. They knew the city had already been using hand-held GPS devices to map out fire hydrants across the city. That is when it hit them (lightbulb):why not use those same devices to GPS every single grave at the cemetery? That information would then be placed in an online searchable database at no charge to the public. It was logical and convenient for community members and the library. And best of all? No more paper shuffling!

So, the Reference department got to work. They battled cold and rainy days as well as the suffocating South Texas heat for the sake of completing this one-of-a-kind project. All graves were coordinated. Information about birthdates and death dates were recorded on a simple iPhone app known as iSpreadsheet and photos were taken of every headstone to use as a searching tool for anyone interested. Several graves were in bad condition so names and dates were not legible. Those simply read as “unknown” on the online database that is now available online for community members to utilize. The deceased can be searched through a search tab by first name, last name, birthdate, or death date. The database can be found here: http://cop.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=c85a7458cb404438ac0d580c51c157ac.

So the next time you wonder if technology will put a damper on public libraries, remember the innovative idea the Pharr Memorial Library Reference department devised using advanced technology available to them. Libraries have always and will always adapt to stay relevant and current.

[1] Vinjamuri, David. “Why Public Libraries Matter: And How They Can Do More,” Forbes, January 16, 2013, accessed October 19, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2013/01/16/why-public-libraries-matter-and-how-they-can-do-more/.

[2] Sides, Emily. “Pharr Library Catalogs Historic Cemetery,” The Monitor, March 28, 2015, accessed October 20, 2015, http://www.themonitor.com/premium/pharr-library-catalogs-historic-cemetery/article_49303b7c-d590-11e4-ae58-3b91c6499bd6.html.

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