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New York Public Library

Hilarious Questions Posed to the NYPL Pre-Internet

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New York Public Library

People Google a lot of strange things. But while the anonymity of the internet certainly helps them feel comfortable indulging certain inquiries, our curiosity as humans didn't start with the invention of the search engine.

"If we didn’t have the Internet right now, and you were looking to find out information on the migratory patterns of blue birds, you couldn’t just go to a computer and ask," says Morgan Holzer, New York Public Library's Information Architect. "You had to find an encyclopedia, which were expensive, so you would go to your library. And if you were at the library and didn’t want to find an encyclopedia, there’s a person standing right there who you could just ask and who had been trained to either give you an answer or tell you where to find an answer."

And sometimes those librarians in the general research division—who are responsible for fielding all sorts of inquiries, either over the phone or in person—wrote down the questions they were asked.

"When they heard one they hadn’t heard before, that was a little weird or a little funny, they might write it down," Holzer says. "Or if it was a hard one that they might have to ask someone later on or couldn’t answer right away, they would write it down." Recently, the Library stumbled upon a box of some of these old reference questions, with dates ranging from the 1940s to 1983 (and a particular concentration of questions from the '40s and '60s).

Some of the cards include notes on who was doing the asking: A lady who asked for "a book on Reincarnation that has illustrations ... seemed relieved that she could come in and look at it." Some include answers: What is the life of an eyelash? 150 days. And some aren't questions at all: On January 20, 1983 a reader approaches the desk and said, "You'll have to forgive me, I'm from New Jersey."

But most just speak for themselves:

Starting this week, Holzer will post one of these cards on the Library's Instagram each Monday. If this has inspired questions of your own, you can take it to the librarians with Ask NYPL. Even in the age of the Internet, the Library gets 1700 reference questions a month—and that's not including inquiries about the logistics of the Library itself. These days, people are looking for resources to help them with difficult research topics. Check out some of the recent questions posed:

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

And if you've got a family lighthouse to unload, it can't hurt to ask:

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Animals
These Mobile Libraries Roaming Zimbabwe Are Pulled By Donkeys
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The people behind the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Program (RLRDP) believe you shouldn’t have to travel far to access good reading material. That’s why they have donkeys do a lot of the traveling for the people they help. According to inhabitat, RLRDP manages 15 donkey-powered library carts that deliver books to communities without libraries of their own.

The organization was founded in 1990 with the mission of bringing libraries to rural parts of Zimbabwe. Five years later, they started hitching up donkeys to carts packed with books. Each mobile library can hold about 1200 titles, and 12 of the 15 carts are filled exclusively with books for kids. The donkeys can transport more than just paperbacks: Each two-wheeled cart has space for a few riders, and three of them are outfitted with solar panels that power onboard computers. While browsing the internet or printing documents, visitors to the library can use the solar energy to charge their phones.

Donkeys pulling a cart

Carts usually spend a day in the villages they serve, and that short amount of time is enough to make a lasting impact. RLRDP founder Dr. Obadiah Moyo wrote in a blog post, “The children explore the books, sharing what they’ve read, and local storytellers from the community come to bring stories to life. It really is a day to spread the concept of reading and to develop the reading culture we are all working towards.”

Kids getting books from a cart.

About 1600 individuals benefit from each cart, and Moyo says schools in the areas they visit see improvement in students. The donkey-pulled libraries are only part of what RLRDP does: The organization also trains rural librarians, installs computers in places without them, and delivers books around Zimbabwe via bicycle—but the pack animals are hard to top. Moyo writes, “When the cart is approaching a school, the excitement from the children is wonderful to see as they rush out to greet it.”

[h/t inhabitat]

All images courtesy of Rural Libraries and Resources Development Program

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26 Fun Facts You Probably Didn't Know About Libraries
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Before he became a bestselling author, John Green worked for the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine for six years. Now, the novelist and Mental Floss YouTube host is returning to the stacks once more, delivering bibliophiles over two dozen trivia bits about the free repositories of knowledge.

Since Clearchus—the ancient Greek ruler and student of the philosopher Plato—founded the first-known public library around 364 BCE, readers from around the world have rifled through sacred Buddhist manuscripts in Bhutan’s unique temple library; felt equal parts awed and overwhelmed upon entering the Library of Congress; and paid homage to Morocco’s gatekeepers of knowledge by visiting the world’s oldest still-operating library in Fez, which was founded by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri in 859 CE [PDF].

Learn more about these fascinating libraries—along with which famous children’s author was once a librarian, which president was guilty of having a library book that was 221 years overdue, which Francis Ford Coppola film may never have been made without a school librarian’s petition, and more—by watching the video above, or by subscribing to our YouTube channel.

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