Left to his own devices, NPR host Scott Simon admits he would regularly confuse Monet, Manet and Matisse; Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal; Socrates and Sophocles; Crete and Sicily; and Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft.
Thank goodness for librarian Kee Malesky — who, for 20 years, has been saving NPR's hosts and reporters from themselves. Malesky is the organization's longest-serving librarian, and Simon says he suspects that she is actually the source of all human knowledge.
In her new book, All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge, Malesky catalogs some of the facts that she has researched so dutifully over the years.
Odd Queries From NPR Staff
During her two decades of service in the NPR reference library, reporters have asked Malesky to look up some fairly obscure, though fascinating pieces of information.
The first non-Native American to set foot in what is now Chicago?
That would be an African man from Haiti by the name of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, whose trading post was the first permanent dwelling there. Chicago has since named a high school after him that few residents can properly pronounce.
And how about the "the rockets' red glare" referenced in the Star-Spangled Banner? Where exactly did the red glare come from?
The British army's Congreve rockets, Malesky explains. They were effectively very large bottle rockets — the kind you might set off in your backyard on July 4 — but in the early 1800s, they were a novel development in weaponry.
And watermelons — fruit or vegetable?
"Yes," Malesky says with a laugh. "It's both. Most of us would think of it as a fruit, but it can also be considered a vegetable because it's in the same family as cucumbers and gourds." (In fact, the state Legislature of Oklahoma recently declared that the watermelon would be the official state vegetable.)
And then there are those startling statistics about consumption. In 2007, the average American drank 22.7 gallons of coffee, according to the USDA. But believe it or not, that's actually half the amount Americans were drinking in the 1940s.
And finally, there's the matter of van Gogh's ear. Did he nearly cut it off himself? A group of German scholars closely examined the police reports and proposed that artist Paul Gauguin — van Gogh's close friend — may have cut the ear off during the heat of an argument.
"But the curator of the Van Gogh Museum is skeptical," Malesky says, "So I put it in [the book] as just a 'Maybe.' "
'I Wouldn't Want To Be Your Editors'
NPR staffers can be a demanding bunch, but Malesky says that "for the most part, they're very appreciative of our efforts."
"But I wouldn't want to be your editors," she tells Scott Simon. "I wouldn't want to have to tell you, 'No.' "
NPR personnel can be very loyal to their librarians — something that Malesky discovered very quickly back in 1990. On her first day in the reference library, the late Dan Schorr, an NPR news analyst and three-time Emmy winner, walked into the library in search of NPR's veteran library manager.
"He stopped short," Malesky remembers. "I said, 'Hello, can I help you?' And he said, 'No, that's OK,' turned around and walked out."
But it didn't take long for Schorr and Malesky to get to know each other — he eventually began bringing his research questions to her, "and I managed to answer them adequately," Malesky says, and the two became close friends.
Schorr himself figures prominently in one of Malesky's chapters — it was through one of his stories that she discovered a surprising factoid about the Watergate scandal.
"He asked me to find the phrase 'follow the money' in the book All The President's Men by [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein," Malesky recalls. "And because my policy was to go to any length to get Dan Schorr what he needed, I went through the book page by page, and that phrase does not appear there. And then in talking to Bob Woodward and the screenwriter, William Goldman, Dan discovered that [the phrase is] actually kind of made up for the movie."
While Malesky harvests many of her surprising facts in the course of her research for NPR reporters, she doesn't just wait for the phone to ring. She spends plenty of time hunting down information on her own, and then brings the facts to reporters' attention.
"We [librarians] read all the time," Malesky says. "We're constantly looking at new sources, at websites, at all kinds of things that are happening in the world. ... We're all very proactive. It's really a part of the proper job of a librarian."
Red hair, the rarest human color (less than 2 percent of the population), is caused by a variation in what is called the "Celtic" gene.
George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in about three weeks and found his inspiration in the sounds and rhythm of a train as he traveled to Boston.
Tiny parasites — eyelash mites called Demodex — live and die on the faces of most of us; they walk around, eat, rest, mate and lay eggs.
The great Russian epic Doktor Zhivago was first published in Italy, not in the Soviet Union.
A Steinway grand piano comprises about 12,000 individual parts, and it takes 450 skilled artisans to create one.
Candidates in the 2008 U.S. elections spent as much money on their campaigns as it cost to build the nuclear submarine USS Jimmy Carter.
At any given moment, there are 10 quintillion individual insects on Earth — flies, mosquitoes, beetles, bees, etc.
There are 785 million illiterate adults in the world, and two-thirds of them are women.
The oldest zoomorphic structure in the U.S. is Lucy the Elephant, a former hotel in Margate, N.J.
The first e-book was the Declaration of Independence, typed into a computer in 1971 by the founder of Project Gutenberg.
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