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.”