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

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 question 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 on their finger tips these days, the New York Public Library receives roughly 30,000 calls per year.

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“Any statistics on the life span of the abandoned woman?”, a caller wanted to know in 1963.

“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.

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“When did Moses first come into the public eye?”, a caller asked in 1963.

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 a 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. Here, we have reposted a few from their Instagram account.

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How many neurotic people in the US? (Dec 30, 1946)

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What does it mean when you dream you’re being chased by an elephant? (May 27, 1947)

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Where can I get all available statistics on volume of business, money involved, etc. in the sale of cadavers? (Nov 30, 1948)

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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? (Oct, 1976)

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Is a black widow spider more harmful dead or alive?

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Is there a full moon every night in Acapulco? (Oct 6, 1961)

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What was the origin of bedsheets? (Jan 30, 1950)

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Off-hand do you happen to know a really good book about having twins?

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Nutritional value of human flesh. (June 6, 1958)

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Do you have information about permanent people? (Feb, 1966)

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Do you have any books on the science of ATHAR, which is the science of deducing information from camel tracks? (June 23, 1949)

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Can you give me a reference book listing the colors of the different countries? (Nov 20, 1946)

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How do you spell S p i z z e r i n c t u m? (Feb, 1949)

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I'm looking for a book about Helen of Troy by Holmes. (i.e., Homer's Iliad.) (Jan, 1961)

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Is it good poetry where every other line rhymes, instead of having each line rhyme with the one before it? (Feb 14, 1944)

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Can you tell me how much water I use? (Nov, 1949)

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Somebody in 1962 was looking for “Charles Darwin's book. Oranges & peaches." The librarian politely directed the person to “On the Origin of Species.”

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If a poisonous snake bites itself, will it die? (Sep 22, 1949)

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When West Point Cadets throw their hats in the air at graduation, do they ever get them back?

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What lassitude is New York City on? (June 2, 1959)

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Is it proper to wear a veil at night time?

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Q: "If self-preservation is the first law of nature, what's the second?" A: "Exploitation is the second - see Albert Jay Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. 1943 p. 132" (June 23, 1949)

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May a funeral be held July 4? (July 10, 1945)

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Can mice "throw up"? Referred to Amer. Mus. of Nat. History (May 25, 1949)
Follow-up: "Writer of article using this question was told by a laboratory assistant that mice do throw up. 4/6/72”

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"How do I 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."

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When, before 1866, was there no full moon in February? (Feb 9, 1950)
Answer: According to our research, the answer is 1847! And in 2018, we'll see it happen again - this phenomenon happens about every 19 years.

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Does the female human being belong to the mammal class?

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List of famous men born prematurely. (June 7, 1950)

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