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'All Facts Considered' By NPR's Longtime Librarian

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.

All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge
By Kee Malesky
Hardcover, 288 pages
Wiley
List price: $19.95

Read An Excerpt

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."


A Few Of Malesky's Favorite Facts, Distilled
(Full explanations of these tidbits of knowledge can be found in All Facts Considered.)

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.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

I'm a dunce. I know a few song lyrics, a few baseball stats, and how to knot a tie. Left to my own devices, I confuse Doric with Corinthian; Monet, Manet, and Matisse; Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal; Socrates and Sophocles; Crete and Sicily; Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft. Hey, the capital of Missouri -Columbia, right? Or is it Branson?��

But my ignorance is carefully concealed on this program because I can punch four digits on the telephone and hear...

KEE MALESKY: Library, can we help you?

SIMON: That's Kee Malesky, who is the source of all human knowledge. I said that on the air once. That's all I have to know. She's NPR's longest-serving librarian. She was the inspiration for a PBS children's special. She's now written a book that harvests some of the facts that she's plucked so lovingly over the years.

The book is "All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge." Kee Malesky joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MALESKY: Thank you, Scooter.

SIMON: Now, watermelon - fruit or vegetable?

MALESKY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: 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. And the state legislature of Oklahoma a few years ago decided that it would be their state vegetable.

SIMON: But, I mean, in theory, could California decide to make it a state fruit?

MALESKY: Oh, absolutely.

SIMON: Huh. The rockets' red glare - where'd the red glare come from?

MALESKY: Well, that's Congreve rockets.

SIMON: Yeah?

MALESKY: Which was at that point in time, early 1800s, a new development in weaponry. And to get a better idea of what they are, if you've ever set off a bottle rocket in your backyard on Fourth of July, that's a small version of a Congreve rocket.

SIMON: We really can't stump you with anything, can we?

MALESKY: Well, not if it's in my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Then I've already looked it up.

SIMON: I think the question everybody wants to know: what's it like to work with a group of insufferable egos like you do day in and day out?

MALESKY: I can't imagine who you're referring to.

SIMON: I can't either. But, objectively, you know...

MALESKY: Well, I would say, if you're referring to...

SIMON: In the abstract, what's it like to work with...

MALESKY: ...to NPR hosts and reporters, I'm very happy to support them, because for the most part they're very appreciative of our efforts. But I wouldn't want to be your editors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: What does that mean?

MALESKY: I wouldn't want to have to tell you no.

SIMON: Yeah. I think almost the most astonishing fact - and I hardly consider it inessential - that I encountered in your book is, you know, all of our latte swilling in this day and age to the contrary, Americans are actually drinking less coffee than we did in 1946, right?

MALESKY: According to the USDA, Americans in 2007 consumed about 22.7 gallons, whereas in the 1940s it was more than twice that. And I think, no doubt, the difference is the popularity of carbonated beverages, soft drinks and the like, which were not so available earlier in the 20th century.

SIMON: Yeah. We just had a couple, right?

MALESKY: So everybody drank coffee at every meal.

SIMON: Some of us still do, I'd thank(ph) you to recognize.

One of the last things that our friend the late Dan Schorr wrote for publication was a blurb for your book. He said Kee Malesky enshrines the humble fact in a way that's both instructive and enchanting. Any memories?

MALESKY: Well, I remember the first time Dan came into the library on what was pretty much my very first day in the news library in 1990. And he expected to see the library manager, Rob. Rob wasn't there. And he stopped short. I said, hello, can I help you? He said, no, that's OK. And he turned around and walked out. But...

SIMON: I meant any warm memories, Kee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: It gets better.

SIMON: Yeah.

MALESKY: Once he realized that I was going to be the only librarian available on Fridays, and he needed information on Fridays, he did go ahead and ask me some questions. And I managed to answer them adequately. And so we did become very close friends. And I'm really very proud that he read my book, that there's a fact about him in my book and that we wrote me that blurb.

SIMON: Is that the Watergate fact?

MALESKY: That's right. He asked me to find the phrase "follow the money" in the book "All the President's Men" by Woodward and Bernstein. And because it's Dan Schorr and my policy is to go to any lengths to get Dan Schorr the information needed, I went through the book page by page. And that phrase does not appear there.

And then in talking to Bob Woodward and to the screenwriter William Goldman, Dan discovered that it's actually kind of made up for the movie and it did not occur in real life. So I called that fact: he should have said it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But people say it all the time to each other.

MALESKY: Well, now they do, certainly. And that's why Dan was asking. He wanted to use it in another context.

SIMON: Did Van Gogh cut off his ear?

MALESKY: In the United States it's OK to say Van Gogh.

SIMON: OK.

MALESKY: It's what we're most used to, but it's nice of you to try.

SIMON: I wouldn't do it for anyone other than you. I assure you.

MALESKY: There are a couple of German scholars who recently looked at the police reports and such and think that perhaps his good friend the painter Paul Gauguin cut off his ear on the street in Arles when they were arguing over something. But apparently...

SIMON: Excuse me. If he cut off his ear, he can't be that good a friend.

MALESKY: Well, they were having a bad day.

SIMON: Yeah.

MALESKY: But they were friends over many, many years. But the curator of the Van Gogh Museum is skeptical. So I put it in there as just a maybe.

SIMON: I think I know this, but let me double check it with you. Who was the first non-Native American to set foot in Chicago?

MALESKY: Well, it was actually an African man, a man from Haiti, whose name was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. And he constructed the first dwelling at a trading post at what is now known as Chicago.

SIMON: Yeah, and they named a high school after him, although we say it du Sable.

MALESKY: Of course. In New York we would say du Sable - du Sable.

SIMON: I will say, while we're recording this interview, that what we treasure about you here - you just don't wait for the phone to ring. You find out stuff and bring it to our attention.

I mean, you've, you know, so many of the stories that people wind up hearing that they actually like begin with you uncovering something.

MALESKY: Well, and any of the librarians, we read all the time. We're constantly looking at news sources, at websites, at all kinds of things that are happening in the world. And a particular host or reporter pops into mind, I say, oh, so and so needs to know about this. So we're all very proactive. It's really a part of the proper job of a librarian.

SIMON: So sometimes on those very rare occasions when we call up the extension at a library and there's no answer, it goes into voicemail, am I correct in assuming that there are half a dozen of you crouching below the table saying...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Oh no, it's Scott. You pick it up. No, we're happy to answer any call.

SIMON: You have a wonderful last section where you talk about great endings to books, including, I think, just about my favorite, which is Frank McCourt's ending to - I like "The Great Gatsby" too.

MALESKY: That is the line that makes it the great American novel, I think.

SIMON: Yeah.

MALESKY: It's the closing line.

SIMON: Borne carelessly against the past.

MALESKY: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

SIMON: Yeah, that's great.

MALESKY: Yeah.

SIMON: And then you have Frank McCourt's ending from "Angela's Ashes."

MALESKY: I stand on the deck with a wireless officer, looking at the lights of America twinkling. He says, My god, that was a lovely night, Frank. Isn't this a great country altogether? 'Tis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: All of these closing lines, which I thought was very clever of me to use that as the final fact in the book, all of them are ones that I'm so attached to I can't even read them without choking up. Some of them I absolutely can't even read to myself without choking up.

SIMON: Well, NPR's reference librarian, Kee Malesky. Her new book, "All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge."

Kee, it's a great book. I'll say it. 'Tis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Thank you so much.

SIMON: And you can find out how many insects are on Earth and their names, and read more of Kee's favorite facts on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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