A few days ago, the New York Public Library uploaded an intriguing picture to its Instagram account. The picture was of a torn and tattered index card with a plaintive and yet hopeful message typed on it: “Is this the place where I ask questions I can’t get answers to?” It turns out that before the Internet significantly improved the process of resolving heretofore elusive questions of whether it was Bill Paxton or Bill Pullman who was the star of Spaceballs (answer: Pullman), a significant chunk of the job description of librarians, at least at the New York Public Library (NYPL), was slaking the well-nigh random curiosity of the public at large. They fielded questions in person but also over the telephone, and some of the questions that came up were recorded on index cards.
The purpose of NYPL’s Instagram post was to announce the inauguration of a new series of photos, to be posted every Monday, using the hashtag #letmelibrarianthatforyou:
We found an old recipe box while cleaning out a desk, and it was labeled “Interesting Reference Questions,” the contents of which ranged from total stumpers to funny mispronunciations. 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.
The series’ second installment was yesterday, and the card they chose was incredibly beguiling, so much so that I am forced to entertain the notion that someone was pranking the NYPL, way back in 1967:
Telephone call mid-afternoon New Year’s Day, 1967: Somewhat uncertain female voice: “I have two questions. The first is sort of an etiquette one. 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? 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?” CS 1/2/67
Shrewdly, the NYPL released a couple dozen questions to Gothamist—not the cards, just the questions—and they’re well worth a look. We’ve included the few pics of the index cards that have been released so far. Gothamist reports that “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.” (I have used “Ask NYPL” myself via chat, but to resolve a thorny research question about the NYPL’s holdings, not to find out about the cast of Spaceballs.) Reading the questions is a little like seeing what the Autocomplete function spits out when you type in “why is there a” on Google, only a bit more refined:
Are black widow spiders more harmful dead or alive?
Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
Can NYPL recommend a good forger?
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.
Does the Bible have a copyright?
What percentage of all bathtubs in the world are in the US?
What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?
What’s the difference between pig and pork?
Can mice throw up?
And, finally, one the Manhattanites especially will enjoy:
via Messy Nessy Chic