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Before the Internet, librarians would ‘answer everything’ — And still do

December 28, 2014

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 mid-afternoon 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 onto 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.”

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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