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Before Google ... Who Knew?

The New York Public Library reading room. (istockphoto)

If Google can't answer your question these days, who you gonna call? A librarian, of course.

Librarians continue to be cool. On a contemporary TNT series, The Librarians are super heroes. For the past couple of years, "librarian" has popped up on the Forbes list of Least Stressful Jobs. And even in this Age of the Search Engine, librarians keep making new discoveries.

Several weeks ago the folks at the iconic 42nd Street building of the New York Public Library in Manhattan happened upon a box of old reference questions — ranging from the 1940s to the 1980s – asked by patrons.

As NYPL spokesperson Angela Montefinise points out, the questions — in and of themselves — are compelling. And perhaps they speak to a gentler, more naïve time.

Perhaps they don't.

"Some are just difficult questions," Angela says. "Others are historically interesting, others are just funny." Here are a few gems, lightly edited for clarity:

  • Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce? (1945)
  • I just saw a mouse in the kitchen. Is DDT OK to use? (1946)
  • What is the life span of an eyelash? Answer: Based on the book Your Hair & Its Care, it's 150 days. (1946)
  • What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant? (1947)
  • Where can I rent a beagle for hunting? (1963)
  • Can you tell me the thickness of a U.S. Postage stamp with the glue on it? Answer: We couldn't tell you that answer quickly. Why don't you try the Post Office? Response: This is the Post Office. (1963)
  • Does the New York Public Library have a computer for use by the public? Answer: No sir! (1966)

And there was this typewritten note found on a cataloguing card:

  • Telephone call mid-afternoon New Year's Day, 1967: Somewhat uncertain female voice: "I have two questions. The first is sort of an etiquette one. I went to a New Year's Eve party and unexpectedly stayed over. I don't really know the hosts. Ought I to send a thank-you note? Second. When you meet a fellow and you know he's worth twenty-seven million dollars — because that's what they told me, twenty-seven million, and you know his nationality, how do you find out his name?"

The library plans to begin posting some of the old questions on its Instagram account in the coming days.

"We were Google before Google existed," Angela explains. "If you wanted to know if a poisonous snake dies if it bites itself, you'd call or visit us."

Really? "Yes, that question was asked."

Even with Google, Siri, OnStar and DuckDuckGo — among others — in the picture, the library continues to field queries. "We get about 1,700 reference questions a month via chat, email and phone," Angela says. including tougher questions that people can't answer --even with the Internet.

And with so much conflicting information out there, Angela adds, it's hard to know the correct answer.

A wise librarian can often help in those situations. That's a fact.

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The Protojournalist: an experimental storytelling project for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. lweeks@npr.org

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