Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Case Study No. 2046: Morgan Holzer

The Weirdest Questions People Asked Librarians Before Google
The Weirdest Questions People Asked Librarians Before Google
Added: 6 months ago
From: Chandni Hitesh
Views: 1


Before Google, Here's What New Yorkers Asked The NYPL
Jen Carlson in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 22, 2014 1:15 pm

Recently some folks at the New York Public Library discovered a box containing old reference questions from the 1940s to 1980s. They'll be posting the questions to their Instagram account on Mondays (starting today), but have shared a bunch with us today, noting, "we were Google before Google existed." (On that note, Neil Gaiman once pointed out, "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.")

Check out what people wanted to know decades ago, below - the NYPL has included answers and dates with some:

* Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?
* I just saw a mouse in the kitchen. Is DDT OK to use? (1946)
* Does NYPL have a computer for us of the public? Answer: No sir! (1966)
* What did women use for shopping backs before paper bags?
* Are black widow spiders more harmful dead or alive?
* Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce? (1945)
* Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
* Can NYPL recommend a good forger?
* Where can I rent a beagle for hunting (1963). We also had requests to rent a guillotine.
* Has the gun with which Oswald shot President Kennedy been returned to the family?
* What is the life span of an eyelash? Answer: Based on the book Your hair and its care, it's 150 days.
* What is the life span of an eyebrow hair?
* Does the Bible have a copyright?
* What percentage of all bathtubs in the world are in the US?
* Can you tell me the thickness of a US Postage stamp with the glue on it? Answer: We cannot get this answer quickly. Perhaps try the Postal Service. Response: This is the Postal Service.
* What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?
* How do you put up wallpaper?
* A question from New Year's Day 1967: I unexpectedly stayed over somewhere last night. Is it appropriate to send a thank you?
* What's the difference between pig and pork?
* What kind of glass should I use in my greenhouse in Cuba?
* Can mice throw up?

These were all asked either via phone or in person, and we're told, "The system back then was the same as today, in that we tried to answer right away. While we're not 100 percent sure how certain questions wound up in this box, they seem to be questions that we didn't have an answer to at the time (for example, at least one question was put in the box in the 1940s, and then answered in the 1970s)."

People still use an updated version of this, called Ask NYPL, and the library says they receive about 1,700 reference questions a month via chat, email, and phone.



In the New York Public Library's Instagram account, Information Architect Morgan Holzer is posting images of 3x5 cards pulled from a shoebox collecting 50 years' worth of weird questions that were posed to the system's reference desks, which were strange and notable enough to warrant addition to the collection.

It's a great collection of the kinds of weird miscellanea that today we pose to search engines without thinking twice, but which were once the province of a hard-working cadre of information specialists who were asked to figure out how to sell notable lighthouses one day, and what the natural enemy of a duck was the next day.

Here's some current reference questions from NYPL:

* Are vegetables and fruits being sold to American supermarkets that are fertilized with human excrement?

* What are the chances of survival after someone's heart stops for more than five minutes? I am having trouble finding a good source that breaks this down. The databases are tough to use and google is being no help. Thank you for any help you can lend!

* I am looking for articles in sociology about how individuals in small group settings tend to look outward to have their needs met, while people in larger groups tend to look inward. The specific context is about people with developmental disabilities who live in residential facilities, and trying to get support for the proposition that people are better off in smaller settings where they would look more to the community rather than the institution for support. Thank you for any guidance about searches or articles.

* I'm looking to do a comparison between the efficiency of buses versus the subway. At rush hour, how many people can load and unload from a subway train (say, the 4 at Grand Central)? About how long does that take? 10 seconds, 45 seconds? Through how many doors in how many cars? Thank you in advance!



Staff at the New York Public Library recently found a recipe box containing a collection of interesting reference questions posed to librarians from the 1940s through the '80s.

"People came to the library for reference, but also for info on buying and selling, looking for inspiration, crafty project ideas, and even to find photos. In a world pre-Google, librarians weren't just Wikipedia, they were people's Craiglist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Instagram all rolled into one."

Some are sad ("Any statistics on the life span of the abandoned woman?"); some are silly ("You'll have to forgive me I'm from New Jersey"); some are sufferingly existential ("Trying to solve the riddle of existence"). Patrons of the library are still welcome to seek answers from librarians, but now Ask NYPL offers help via phone, email, chat, or text message.

The library will release a new question - some with the original answers - each Monday on Instagram under #letmelibrarianthatforyou.



"Do mice throw up?" and "Any statistics on the lifespan of the abandoned woman?" are some of the less strange questions that librarians at the New York Public Library have been writing down for decades. If you're wondering if people asked about sex, the answer is "yes, absolutely."

Before Google, I used HotBot - because it sounded like the best search engine for a teen looking for porn, fuck you Alta Vista - and before that I don't even remember how I asked difficult questions that I wouldn't have the answers to. Now that I'm an adult, I am addicted to googling everything from "how do you really pronounce 'lascvious'" to "Am I having a heart attack right now or what?" to "What are some good ways to tell if the advice nurse knows the symptoms of a heart attack and is just lying to you to spare your feelings because it's too late for you to be saved?" I can't imagine life without Google. But for people in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the only people they had to ask these difficult questions were librarians, arbiters of truth and knowledge. Of course, the librarians were writing these questions down.

The NYPL is releasing some of the best questions they've received on their Instagram and the ones that have already been posted are doozies. My favorite, aside from "what percentage of all bathtubs are in the US?" and "You'll have to excuse me, I'm from New Jersey" - which, not a question - is this one, posed by a woman who was going to politely become a millionaire or die trying:

Telephone call mid-afternoon New Year's Day, 1967:

Somewhat uncertain female voice: "I have two questions. The first is sort of an etiquette question. I wentto 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? Second, when you meet a fellow and you know he's worth twenty-seven million dollars because that's what they told me, twenty-seven million, and you know his nationality, how do you find out his name?"

"I mean, yes, I want to marry someone for their money, but I don't want to be vulgar about it."

You can see more questions here and check back every Monday for more. I haven't been as excited about the library since the SFPL upped their borrowing privileges from 20 to 75 books per person.

No comments:

Post a Comment