Hilarious Questions Posed to the NYPL Pre-Internet

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New York Public Library

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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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