Let Me Librarian That for You: What People Asked Librarians Before Google Came Along


I often won­der just how I would have done my job(s) before the advent of an inter­net that puts more or less what­ev­er infor­ma­tion I might need right at my fin­ger­tips. The answer, of course, applies to any ques­tion about how we did things in an ear­li­er tech­no­log­i­cal era: we would’ve had to talk to some­one. Some of us would’ve had to talk to a librar­i­an, just like the ones The New York Pub­lic Library has employed (and con­tin­ues to employ) to research and respond to any ques­tions peo­ple need answered.


The inter­net, as it hap­pens, has loved #let­meli­brari­anthat­fory­ou, the hash­tag the New York Pub­lic Library start­ed using on Insta­gram to iden­ti­fy the unusu­al such ques­tions it field­ed in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Their recent dis­cov­ery of a box of note­cards filled with pre­served ques­tions from the 1940s through the 80s, pho­tographs of which they now post on a reg­u­lar basis, has pro­vid­ed a clear win­dow onto the human curios­i­ty of days past — or rather, the instances of human curios­i­ty that librar­i­ans found curi­ous enough to pre­serve in their box labeled “inter­est­ing research ques­tions” and kept behind the desk.

nypl questions 2

Search tech­nol­o­gy, of course, has­n’t yet made human con­sul­tants of every kind obso­lete; there are more Googleable and less Googleable ques­tions, after all. Exam­ples of the for­mer include 1962’s “What is the ges­ta­tion of human beings in days?” (“I was born on 1/29/62,” replies one com­menter. “Maybe my moth­er was get­ting impa­tient!”), 1966’s query about whether Jules Verne wrote Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, and the undat­ed “Are Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, and Socrates the same per­son?”

nypl questions

Some patrons, on the oth­er end of the spec­trum, pre­ferred to ask the unan­swer­able: one need­ed the solu­tion to “the rid­dle of exis­tence,” and anoth­er called in pur­suit of The Oxford Ornithol­o­gy of Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture. Even if the librar­i­ans could­n’t help out these inquis­i­tive peo­ple of the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, I do hope they found a way to sati­ate your curios­i­ty. It almost makes me want to see what mod­ern human­i­ty is Googling right now. Wait, no — I said “almost.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alain de Bot­ton Shows How Art Can Answer Life’s Big Ques­tions in Art as Ther­a­py

Woody Allen Answers 12 Uncon­ven­tion­al Ques­tions He Has Nev­er Been Asked Before

What Ques­tions Would Stephen Fry Ask God at the Pearly Gates?

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Margaret-Rose Stringer says:

    When I worked in a pub­lic library, the ques­tion I was asked most was, with­out doubt, that put to me by lit­tle old ladies:
    “Dear, what was that book I was read­ing last time ?”

  • kAZI says:

    I have com­plete the Master’s Degree from depart­ment of Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and Library Man­age­ment of Dha­ka Uni­ver­si­ty in Bangladesh. i WANT TO JOB RELATED FILED. HELP ME ANYBODY.

  • James says:

    For many years the Infor­ma­tion Desk at Auburn Uni­ver­si­ty’s Foy Union has been the answer source for many ques­tions. A few years ago a the Today show did a short piece on the ser­vice. As of this com­ment the ser­vice is still active. So if Google does­n’t know try Foy.

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