Before The Internet, Librarians Would 'Answer Everything' — And Still Do | KUOW News and Information

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

Dec 29, 2014
Originally published on December 29, 2014 1:28 pm

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 midafternoon 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."

In fact, she says there's a surprising amount of overlap between the questions from the archive and the questions she fields in 2014. "These are questions that we are answering still, today, and we will probably be answering tomorrow, as well," she says.

There are questions of etiquette, questions about the Bible and — especially in the days after Christmas — a lot of people want to know how to download e-books to their brand-new e-readers.

Caballero-Li says plenty of people call the library because they don't have access to the Internet, but others call after they couldn't find a satisfactory answer on Google.

"You can find a lot of information online, of course, and that's great," she says. "But when you can't, or when you have too many answers, or you can't quite distinguish fact from fiction, that's when you reach out to us."

Librarians are "information specialists," she says, and can help point patrons to resources that aren't available online. Also, sometimes there's just something about speaking to a human being.

And nothing is off-limits — really.

"There are no stupid questions," Caballero-Li says. "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."

Granted, the librarians have received a fair number of stumpers over the years. "We don't know everything," Caballero-Li says, "but we can always point you in the right direction."

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Before Google, there was that paragon of accuracy and calm - the librarian. Now it may not have been as quick to get the answers to your pressing questions, but you might have had a better chance of getting it right.

Now, the librarians at the New York Public Library recently came upon a box of old reference questions from the 1940s to the 1980s. Here is a salacious sample from New Year's Day 1967. (Reading) I unexpectedly stayed over somewhere last night. Is it appropriate to send a thank-you? Librarian Rosa Caballero-Li is here to answer some of our questions about those questions. She's the manager of Ask NYPL in the library's Reference and Research Services department. And she's at our New York Bureau. Welcome.

ROSA CABALLERO-LI: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So first of all, do think there was a big difference in the kinds of questions that people were asking? What were people asking?

CABALLERO-LI: One of the postcards of our five-minute period on the telephone, a librarian wrote what is the name of Napoleon's horse? Date of opening baseball seasons. Who were the Sutherland sisters? And books on human combustion.

WERTHEIMER: Human combustion. (Laughter). And how were those questions submitted?

CABALLERO-LI: These were over the telephone so one librarian recorded these questions while she was on telephone duty.

WERTHEIMER: What is great about much of these kinds of questions is that it's not always just a question of getting a fact right or wrong. It's not fact checking. It's etiquette, it's opinion.

CABALLERO-LI: Right. So these are more of the who do you trust to ask these questions to? And of course, it's your librarian. They can give you an honest, factual opinion. For us, what's interesting about these questions is that, yes, they were found in the 1940s, but these are questions that we are answering still today and we will probably be answering tomorrow as well.

WERTHEIMER: What is the name of Napoleon's horse?

CABALLERO-LI: Yep. One of the questions that we got on Christmas Eve actually this year is can a mouse swallow a pearl? And for that one, we actually had to call a vet.

WERTHEIMER: That was Rosa Caballero-Li, manager of Ask NYPL in the New York Public Library's Reference and Research Services department.

Here at NPR, we have our own librarians who have to answer our questions. NPR librarian Camille Salas reminded us of some of the more interesting requests.

CAMILLE SALAS, BYLINE: Is that a picture of a goat or a sheep? How do you pronounce Matcha tea? What is the plural of Walkman? Was "Green Eggs And Ham" ever banned in China? What is the name of the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" theme song? I need sounds of underwater bubbles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.