Hilarious Questions Posed to the NYPL Pre-Internet

New York Public Library
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:

This Caturday, Watch Two Kitties Duke It Out in the World’s Oldest Cat 'Video'

VladK213/iStock via Getty Images
VladK213/iStock via Getty Images

Yes, Thomas Edison’s invention of the first commercially successful light bulb indisputably altered the landscape of modern technology. But was it really his most important contribution to the world as we know it? This first-ever “cat video,” shot in his Black Maria Studio in New Jersey, suggests the answer is "No.”

In the 20-second short film from 1894, two cats bedecked in boxing gloves and harnesses duke it out inside a tiny ring. According to the Public Domain Review, the cat-thletes were members of Professor Henry Welton’s touring cat circus, which also featured cats riding bicycles and doing somersaults.

The film’s subject matter is actually pretty on par with the level of eccentricity reached in Edison’s other early recordings, which weren’t always animal-friendly. Atlas Obscura reports that he electrocuted an elephant, filmed a trapeze artist undressing, and also captured the first copyrighted film, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze.” In it, Fred Ott sneezes.

The decision to film a couple of kitties seems oddly prescient in the wake of today’s internet culture, where viral cat videos reign supreme. But if you’ve studied ancient Egypt even a little, you know that 1894 was hardly the beginning of our obsession with fascinating felines.

Hopefully, you’re not forcing your own cat to entertain the neighborhood with boxing matches, but are you treating her as well as you could be? Find out the best way to pet a cat here.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook

Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the 4th or 5th century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A student dunce goes swimming

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. An intellectual visits a friend

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. The miser's will

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. The sharp-witted spectator

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. The hot-headed doctor

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. The cowardly sailor

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. The jealous landlord

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. The drunk barkeeper

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. The guy with bad breath

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. The wife-hater

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. The luckless eunuch

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. The husband with halitosis

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. The gluttonous gifter

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. Too tired to care

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. The forgetful teacher

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

An earlier version of this story ran in 2014.

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