By Mark Messenger • Dec. 10, 2015

A question came up recently that got me thinking about the reliability of information sources and how important it is for us, as librarians, to maintain a serious and open-minded attitude towards fulfilling information requests.

A patron requested that I research the background of the following information:

On a night in the 1950s, a car full of teenagers crashed on a road south of Gypsum, Kan., on the stretch known as “Devil’s Washboard.” The driver was attempting to ride the bumpy road at high speed, following the practice of previous joyriders to apparently launch their vehicles skyward. Several passengers were killed in the crash, and the citizens of Gypsum decided to leave the wrecked vehicle in an adjacent pasture as a grisly warning to other drivers attempting to “ride the washboard.”

The patron went on to relate that to this day, motorists rolling down their windows while traveling the stretch of road report hearing the ghostly screams of the dead teenagers.

Focusing my initial search on the bits of information I felt I could work with — “1950s”, “Gypsum, Kan.”, “car crash”, “teenagers killed”, “Devil’s Washboard” — I entered these keywords and several variations of the same into our Newspaper Archive database that contains scans of the Salina Journal. The database covers the Salina Journal from 1951 to the present, so I felt reasonably certain the tragic incident would be reported extensively. The search proved futile, however. A widening of my search to the subsequent decades of the 1960s and 1970s also proved futile.

The “ghost story” angle, however, is widely reported on the Internet. A Google search of “devil’s washboard gypsum Kansas” elicits a multitude of hits, mostly from ghost-sighting, ghost-hunting and geocaching websites. Most of the details follow the same pattern, and the story is repeated using much of the same language that the patron related to me. However, not one provides any specific details about the accident — a date, persons involved, etc.

So, I’m thinking “urban legend,” and I tell the patron I was unable to find the details of the crash.

Much to my surprise, a few months later, the Salina Journal ran an article about the same incident, along with a large color photo of a wrecked vehicle in a pasture near a dirt road. (Salina Journal, “Beware of haunted places”, October 18, 2015, page B1) Immediately, I scanned the article, hoping that it would reveal information I was unable to uncover, but no specific details were reported. Sure enough, Information Services received more questions about the incident soon after the article was published.

I’ll admit, ghost stories are compelling. Tales of horror make up a large part of popular entertainment. In novels, movies, holiday celebrations —scary stuff is everywhere. Popular reality television hosts make their living chasing down “real-life” ghosts to the delight of millions of viewers. Most urban legends probably have some basis in fact, so the accident probably did take place. Sadly, hundreds of fatal car crashes have occurred in and around Saline County during and since the 1950s. Deterrents like rusty mangled cars and crosses at the sides of roads are a good thing. At least the deaths of accident victims can have some meaning. The carnage I saw in films showed in my ninth grade driver’s education class still run through my mind whenever I approach an unmarked intersection or glance at my rearview mirror while on the Interstate and see a large SUV coming up on my rear fast.

As an Information Services librarian, I’m obligated to help patrons connect with information, learning and culture, to quote our mission statement. Sometimes that means tracking down hard facts: dates, phone numbers, correct spellings, addresses, statistics. Sometimes it means less specific requests: “I like this author, can you recommend someone similar?”, “Can you tell me where the quilt books are?”, or “I need a study guide for a nursing certification test.”

The more vague, open-ended, nonspecific questions we do take seriously, but we try to maintain limits on what we can do and how far we can go. Think of it this way: Information Services can do limited research for patrons as well as provide patrons with the tools they need to conduct research and educate them on how to use those tools.

For myself, these types of information questions are compelling because they can lead me down uncertain paths, and the search itself can be interesting and reveal things I never expected to find. However, tracking down legends and chasing ghosts is difficult and in some cases impossible — it’s best to let them alone and just enjoy the ride.