Before Google there was — that paragon of accuracy and calm — the librarian. The New York Public Library recently came upon a box of questions posed to the library from the 1940s to the ‘80s — a time capsule from an era when humans consulted other humans for answers to their daily questions and conundrums.

Here’s one salacious example: “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?” asked a “somewhat uncertain female voice” during a mid-afternoon telephone call on New Year’s Day, 1967.

Other patrons inquired about the life cycle of an eyebrow hair, how many neurotic people were in the United States, the name of Napoleon’s horse, and just how do you put up wallpaper? As one patron tells the librarian over the phone: “I have the paper; I have the paste. What do I do next? Does the paste go on the wall or the paper?”

The NYPL will be sharing these questions from the archive every Monday on its Instagram account with the hashtag: #letmelibrarianthatforyou.

Librarian Rosa Caballero-Li says that today, more than 100 questions still come into the NYPL’s Reference and Research Services desk every 24 hours. It’s not just fact checking — it’s questions of etiquette, opinion, contact information, even shopping.

“We answer everything,” Caballero-Li tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. “Patrons can call us and reach out to us for anything they feel curious about, any service that they need — and I think that surprises a lot of people.”

Before The Internet, Librarians Would 'Answer Everything’ – And Still Do

time to book selfie.

I, for one, read in geodesic domes on the tops of buildings when pregnant.

post a photo of yourself reading anything anywhere to support the New York Public Library’s #ireadeverywhere literacy initiative.

(current reading: “H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald. highly recommended for those into memoir/Hawks/death/grief).

A thought on New York Public Library bookmobile

This great great grandfather of bookmobiles served in 1930s, going to their traditional rural audience and areas experiencing library cutbacks or restorations such as Queens and Brooklyn. 

It’s a powerful sight to see these old bookmobiles serving communities and schools, contributing to the history of literacy, and reminding how crucial reading is towards the blooming of our minds.

“And always, there was the magic of learning things.” ― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


Between November 1975 and September 1976, a man named Roy Colmer decided to photograph New York City’s doors. Not all of New York City’s doors. No doors in particular. And in no real particular order. But his aptly named Doors, NYC project amounted to more than 3,000 photos, which now live with the New York Public Library.

“He’s playful with the very definition of the door. He’s shooting chain-link gates, dilapidated doorways with no door, or a door that’s been bricked up,” says archivist David Lowe, who works with the collection at NYPL.

Colmer was like a 1970s Google Street View camera — driving by and snapping whatever serendipitously ended up in the frame. The best images in the collection, in fact, are the ones that have been inadvertently photo-bombed.

Street View: New York City’s Doors

Photo credit: Roy Colmer/New York Public Library