Interview with Marie Concannon, winner of the RUSA Award for Excellence in Reference and Adult Library Services – interview conducted by Chris LeBeau, Chair of the RUSA Achievement Awards Committee. (August 10, 2022)
Chris: I have here today, Marie Concannon. Marie has won the RUSA Award for Excellence in Reference and Adult Library Services in 2022 for her libguide “Prices and Wages by Decade.”
So, Marie, first of all, congratulations on this award. I’m very, very excited for you. Marie is head of Government Information and Data Archives at the University of Missouri Library in Columbia, MO. Marie, I understand you’re a self-proclaimed history lover. What were some of your prior positions to get you to the position you now hold?
Marie: Just one before this. I was a librarian at the State Historical Society in Missouri, from 1989 to 2000.
Chris: Now, this guide looks like a tremendous amount of work. Why did you even start this?
Marie: Well, historic prices have always been my favorite kind of question. Back when I was at the Historical Society, sometimes we would get them. At the time, I thought of those questions as being so, SO challenging, but my boss had a way of knowing where to find the answers. For example, once someone asked, “How much would it cost for a man and a horse to cross the Mississippi River on a ferry in the year 1871?” I remember thinking “Could you find that anywhere!?” Keep in mind, we got this question around 1995, which was pre-Internet. You couldn’t Google it. You’d have to really know your collection. And my boss found it! I always thought that was so cool.
So, years later, fast forward to–I think it was 2012. I was here in the government documents department, and I noticed that there was a book on the reference shelf called The Value of a Dollar. It appeared to be well-used. I thought that the contents of that book could be easily found in government documents, which were increasingly available online, in Hathi Trust.
I thought that researchers would find this topic so much more interesting if they could look at the original, primary sources. So, I got this idea. I wanted to get a LibGuide going to point to prices and wages in historic publications. It so happened that I had a work study student who was majoring in business, and he needed tasks corresponding to his major. I thought it was a great opportunity to get the LibGuide started.
For the first year or two, the guide was very much still under construction. I didn’t promote it and actually didn’t even think anybody would find it. But the web hits started going up. The more that traffic increased, the more I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I have to fix up the site!” And the more I fixed it up, the more traffic we got. It just sort of spiraled to the point where we are now getting over 900,000 hits a year.
Chris: So, you mentioned sources and the Hathi Trust. What other sources do you draw from?
Marie: We try to point to government reports as much as we can because they are really good, reliable sources. But there are big gaps in what the government covers.
Once I was asked the price of a cameo necklace in the year 1910. Of course, the government didn’t collect that kind of detailed data, so we had to look at merchandise catalogs. The whole genre of mail order catalogs complements the government resources well, so I started adding links out to them from our site. Another price category not well represented in either government reports or catalogs is the cost of transportation. Think of the pioneers going across the country or immigrants coming to the United States. Emigrant guides turned out to be wonderful for detailing the costs to get here and start a new life.
So, between these types of books we cover a lot of ground. But we still have to look beyond them sometimes. When we can’t find a price in books, we might try the newspapers. That’s a last resort because the newspapers only show isolated prices for a certain time and place.
Chris: Fascinating. And tell us how you organize all this information.
Marie: Well, as simply as possible! We offer over 22,000 links on this guide. If we put it all on a flat page, it would be overwhelming. So, we hide a lot of content under tabs. Basically, we’ve got one page for each decade, and for each decade we’ve got two columns, “prices” and “wages.” And then we subdivide those columns using Libguide’s tabbed boxes. In the prices column, we might have a tabbed box for transportation, and each tab will be a type of transportation like ship, rail, automobile, horse-drawn… all the different types.
Chris: Yeah, I dipped into the guide just for fun, browsing around because I’m a history major, and I get into this. And I have to say, the guide just draws you in. You start looking for one price or wage, and then all of a sudden you start thinking of all these other things to look up. You can really get quite lost and spend quite a bit of time in the guide. I was also struck by some of the occupations that no longer exist or are very, very minimal. Do you have any, on the top of your head, that you think are kind of interesting?
Marie: Yeah, I think the most unusual occupation I’ve ever seen is one called “Sin-Eater,” in Wales. They would pay a person to come to a funeral and become the receptacle of the deceased’s sins which had not absolved for in life.
Chris: You know, I kind of like that. Do you know what happened to that? Well, that’s a good one to send the audience out to look for in Google and see what that is. They have homework. Just remind us again what century you start in and how far back you can look for data.
Marie: When I originally conceived the site, I wanted to take it back to the start of the nation in 1776. But some of the sources for 1770s data had even earlier numbers, even as early as the 1600s. So, have one catch-all page for all data up to 1779.
As for the geographical scope, I originally planned to limit it to the United States, but I started getting requests for foreign data. Once we added foreign sections and it proved to be popular, I thought it made a lot of sense to cover especially well the countries where many U.S. immigrants came from.
You can compare how much they could make there [in the country of origin] and how much they could earn here. And it all begins to make sense, why they’d move. We do have a worldwide audience for this site. We’ve had every country visit except for maybe five in the world.
Chris: Well, you kind of answered another question I had, and that is, are you done? Obviously not. It doesn’t sound like you’re anywhere near done.
Marie: Oh no. There is still so much to add. I keep a list on a hidden page on my price and wages guide, and it’s huge. Every time I’ve chanced across something that would be good on the site, I’ve thrown into the hidden list with the plan to add it someday. The public version of the Prices and Wages site only shows about 25% of data sources I know about.
Chris: I think most of us can figure out who might use this. But do you have a good sense of who is dipping into this guide and who’s really using it?
Marie: We have most usage on weekdays. I do think that we get a lot of students, junior high through college. We also get people who find us by randomly typing questions in Google about historical prices or wages. Eighty-four percent of all of our traffic comes directly from Google, people typing in a question.
Some of the most fun questions are the most unexpected. For example, there’s a TV show, I think it’s called 1883. One of the episodes had a character buy a gift for another character, a silver hand mirror for $50. A lot of people must have thought that the price of that mirror was extraordinary because I got tons of hits on my 1880s page after that episode aired! (With Google Analytics, I can see some of the questions our visitors had typed in Google’s search box).
Chris: Oh funny that must be interesting to watch. Yes. I think it’s just remarkable the way you’ve taken existing data from so many different sources and repackaged it and repurposed it. This is just an immense contribution to not just the scholarly society, but to all of us. I think it’s just a wonderful thing you’re doing. There are a thousand other questions I would love to ask you.
What is the best way for people to reach out to you if they want to talk to you more about this?
Marie: I absolutely welcome anybody who would like to contact me. You can Google “prices and wages by decade,” and it takes you to my site. My contact information is right there. I love to hear from people.
Chris: And we hope the University of Missouri continues to give it their blessing so that you can continue this work. It’s just remarkable. Thank you so much for your contribution and for bringing it to our attention.
Find Marie Concannon’s Prices and Wages by Decade libguide at https://libraryguides.missouri.edu/pricesandwages .