Before there was Google, there were librarians.
When the people of yesteryear were curious about something, they frequently turned to their public library, seeking the answers to nagging queries and difficult dilemmas and even their etiquette questions. Now, the staff at the New York Public Library has stumbled upon a box of notecards with questions posed to librarians—either in person or over the phone—in the pre-Google era. These particular questions surfaced between the 1940s to the 1980s.
The library will be posting photos of the queries to its@NYPL Instagram account every Monday, with the hashtag #letmelibrarianthatforyou.
Today you can tell someone with an inane question to buzz off with a Let Me Google That For You link. But back then, a patient librarian would listen to all sorts of queries, some of them intriguing, yet unanswerable (“What kind of apple did Eve eat?”), some horrifying (“Does the female human belong to the mammal class?”), some very practical (“My daddy owns the second oldest lighthouse in the country, where can I sell it?”).
One patron calling in 1947 had a real bombshell: “I would like to know the physical characteristics of Adolf Hitler. I think I’ve found him—he walks heavier on one foot and everything.” (Hat tip to Mentalfloss for some of these.)
The library’s question-answering service exists today. At AskNYPL, a team of nine librarians answer research and reference questions posed either by phone, chat, email, text, or snail mail. “We continue the work of these librarians from long ago,” librarian Rosa Caballero-Li tells Quartz.
Many of the questions come from people who don’t necessarily have access to a computer or to the internet, Caballero-Li says. But sometimes their reason for coming to a librarian is more deliberate than that. It might be that Google has millions of possible answers to their question, while a librarian can provide specific guidance.
“We have taken a role of bridging the gap between technology and information,” says Caballero-Li. The librarians help patrons to access databases, or tell them how to download e-books on the new e-readers they got for Christmas, or to help them resolve questions that modern search services don’t have many answers for—such as one about a 19th century New York City law that prohibits solicitation by monkeys (like those that accompanied organ grinders).
“We take all questions, we won’t judge you. We see it as a learning moment,” Caballero-Li says.
Many of the questions the librarians get today are the same as they were decades ago: about etiquette, the Bible, historical facts, or animals.
“Today it would be a resounding, ‘Yes!’” says Caballero-Li.
Who hasn’t wondered about the lifespan of an eyelash?
People had the same anxiety about home decor in 1945 as they do today.
“How many neurotic people in the US,” a patron asks. Both then and today, the answer of course is: “Many.”