Home / Funny / Viral / Before The Time Of Google People Used To Write Their Questions To Librarians


If you had a query in 1966, you would not have been able to type it into Google. Instead, people relied on libraries and knowledgeable people to answer their questions. The New York Public Library hotline was established the following year, but even before that, it was possible to get advice from librarians. Some of the questions they received have been recorded, showing interesting and varied searches for knowledge.

The questions were documented on small cards that were similar to those which were used to organise card catalogues. They were written on a typewriter or in a flowing script by hand and sometimes the questions were written down with their answers. People asked all sorts of questions. In 1963, someone asked, “Are there any statistics on the life span of an abandoned woman?” though the identity of the person who asked is unknown. It is possible to speculate what the story behind the question was. Other questions were apparently influenced by current events. On May 27, 1947, an individual asked, “What does it mean when you dream you are being chased by an elephant?” Unfortunately, no answer is given on that card.

On November 30, 1948, an unsettling inquiry was made: "Where can I get all available statistics on the volume of business, the money involved, etc. in the sale of cadavers?" If the librarian asked any follow-up questions, these have not been recorded. Seventy-eight years later, an art enthusiast asked: "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?" One can only guess that the librarian took care to warn the caller against trying to domesticate wild squirrels. On the more practical end, there have been requests for information such as, "Off-hand, do you happen to know a really good book about having twins?"
Rosa Caballero-Li, librarian for the NYPL, is of the opinion that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Her belief is to use any inquiry as an opportunity to teach. It is never the goal to embarrass anyone or make them feel bad. The NYPL librarian instead strives to provide the inquirer with honest answers, in addition to referring them to helpful resources. The ask-a-librarian call-in service gets 30000 inquiries a year, despite the convenience of the Internet. NPR reports that Caballero-Li has stated, “We don’t know everything, but we can always point you in the right direction”. 

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