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Before The Internet, This Is What People Asked New York Public Library's Librarians

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Before there was the Internet and Google, the only way to find answers to a pressing question was to visit the local library and ask the all-knowing librarian.

A few years ago, the staff at the New York Public Library discovered a box of cards containing questions posed to the librarian by members of the public. These questions were asked either in person or received via telephone. The telephone “ask a librarian” service was set up in 1967 and operates to this day. And surprisingly, despite people having information at their fingertips these days, the New York Public Library receives roughly 30,000 calls per year.

“People have been reaching out to librarians for as long as there have been libraries,” Rosa Caballero-Li, the manager of Ask-NYPL, told Great Big Story. “Often time people do not have access to the technology at home,” she explains, “and I honestly think some just want somebody to talk to.”

Between 9 AM and 6 PM, from Monday through Saturday, anybody can dial 917-275-6975 and speak to a live person—one of ten who mans the operation. At any time, at least five are available for taking calls.

Most people call just to ask about library services. Others want to fact-check things they’ve heard on the news. Queries about news, science, and history come in about once an hour. People also dial with basic grammar questions.

Over the decades the library has received some of the most bizarre questions: Why do 18th Century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn't bite the painter? What is the life cycle of an eyebrow hair? How many neurotic people were in the United States? What does it mean when you dream you’re being chased by an elephant? One person just wanted to know how to put up wallpaper. “I have the paper; I have the paste. What do I do next? Does the paste go on the wall or the paper? I've tried both and it doesn't seem to work.”

"There are no stupid questions," Caballero-Li told NPR. "Everything is a teachable moment. We don't embarrass people; we try to answer any questions they have with honesty and we try to refer them to appropriate resources that they might find useful."

The library keeps records of the most absurd and memorable questions asked to them. Some of these date as far back as the 1940s. Have a look at their Instagram account.

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