'All Facts Considered' By NPR's Longtime Librarian

Kee Malesky, hard at work. i i

Who Knew? For more than 20 years, research librarian Kee Malesky has answered questions for NPR reporters, editors and hosts. She has compiled some of her favorite bits of "inessential knowledge" — such as which building did Elvis leave last? -- in a new book, All Facts Considered. Robert P. Malesky hide caption

itoggle caption Robert P. Malesky
Kee Malesky, hard at work.

Who Knew? For more than 20 years, research librarian Kee Malesky has answered questions for NPR reporters, editors and hosts. She has compiled some of her favorite bits of "inessential knowledge" — such as which building did Elvis leave last? -- in a new book, All Facts Considered.

Robert P. Malesky

Did You Know ...

.. that at any given moment, there are 10 quintillion individual insects on Earth? Click here to read more of Malesky's favorite facts.

Left to his own devices, NPR host Scott Simon admits he would regularly confuse Monet, Manet and Matisse; Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal; Socrates and Sophocles; Crete and Sicily; and Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft.

Thank goodness for librarian Kee Malesky — who, for 20 years, has been saving NPR's hosts and reporters from themselves. Malesky is the organization's longest-serving librarian, and Simon says he suspects that she is actually the source of all human knowledge.

In her new book, All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge, Malesky catalogs some of the facts that she has researched so dutifully over the years.

Odd Queries From NPR Staff

During her two decades of service in the NPR reference library, reporters have asked Malesky to look up some fairly obscure, though fascinating pieces of information.

The first non-Native American to set foot in what is now Chicago?

That would be an African man from Haiti by the name of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, whose trading post was the first permanent dwelling there. Chicago has since named a high school after him that few residents can properly pronounce.

And how about the "the rockets' red glare" referenced in the Star-Spangled Banner? Where exactly did the red glare come from?

The British army's Congreve rockets, Malesky explains. They were effectively very large bottle rockets — the kind you might set off in your backyard on July 4 — but in the early 1800s, they were a novel development in weaponry.

All Facts Considered
All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge
By Kee Malesky
Hardcover, 288 pages
Wiley
List price: $19.95

Read An Excerpt

And watermelons — fruit or vegetable?

"Yes," Malesky says with a laugh. "It's both. Most of us would think of it as a fruit, but it can also be considered a vegetable because it's in the same family as cucumbers and gourds." (In fact, the state Legislature of Oklahoma recently declared that the watermelon would be the official state vegetable.)

And then there are those startling statistics about consumption. In 2007, the average American drank 22.7 gallons of coffee, according to the USDA. But believe it or not, that's actually half the amount Americans were drinking in the 1940s.

And finally, there's the matter of van Gogh's ear. Did he nearly cut it off himself? A group of German scholars closely examined the police reports and proposed that artist Paul Gauguin — van Gogh's close friend — may have cut the ear off during the heat of an argument.

"But the curator of the Van Gogh Museum is skeptical," Malesky says, "So I put it in [the book] as just a 'Maybe.' "

'I Wouldn't Want To Be Your Editors'

NPR staffers can be a demanding bunch, but Malesky says that "for the most part, they're very appreciative of our efforts."

"But I wouldn't want to be your editors," she tells Scott Simon. "I wouldn't want to have to tell you, 'No.' "

NPR personnel can be very loyal to their librarians — something that Malesky discovered very quickly back in 1990. On her first day in the reference library, the late Dan Schorr, an NPR news analyst and three-time Emmy winner, walked into the library in search of NPR's veteran library manager.

Facts That Were Considered ... And Then Rejected:

  • Interesting occupations of the fathers of U.S. presidents (turns out most of them were farmers; no pirates or anything exciting)
  • Foreign product names translated (Atari, Mitsubishi, etc.)
  • Germs on kitchen sponges: they're the dirtiest things in our homes
  • Narwhals: toothed whales that look sort of like unicorns of the sea
  • Unusual or obsolete words: pi-jaw, foofaraw, anywhen
  • Evolution of the word "toilet"

"He stopped short," Malesky remembers. "I said, 'Hello, can I help you?' And he said, 'No, that's OK,' turned around and walked out."

But it didn't take long for Schorr and Malesky to get to know each other — he eventually began bringing his research questions to her, "and I managed to answer them adequately," Malesky says, and the two became close friends.

Schorr himself figures prominently in one of Malesky's chapters — it was through one of his stories that she discovered a surprising factoid about the Watergate scandal.

"He asked me to find the phrase 'follow the money' in the book All The President's Men by [Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein," Malesky recalls. "And because my policy was to go to any length to get Dan Schorr what he needed, I went through the book page by page, and that phrase does not appear there. And then in talking to Bob Woodward and the screenwriter, William Goldman, Dan discovered that [the phrase is] actually kind of made up for the movie."

While Malesky harvests many of her surprising facts in the course of her research for NPR reporters, she doesn't just wait for the phone to ring. She spends plenty of time hunting down information on her own, and then brings the facts to reporters' attention.

"We [librarians] read all the time," Malesky says. "We're constantly looking at new sources, at websites, at all kinds of things that are happening in the world. ... We're all very proactive. It's really a part of the proper job of a librarian."


A Few Of Malesky's Favorite Facts, Distilled
(Full explanations of these tidbits of knowledge can be found in All Facts Considered.)

Red hair, the rarest human color (less than 2 percent of the population), is caused by a variation in what is called the "Celtic" gene.

George Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in about three weeks and found his inspiration in the sounds and rhythm of a train as he traveled to Boston.

Tiny parasites — eyelash mites called Demodex — live and die on the faces of most of us; they walk around, eat, rest, mate and lay eggs.

The great Russian epic Doktor Zhivago was first published in Italy, not in the Soviet Union.

A Steinway grand piano comprises about 12,000 individual parts, and it takes 450 skilled artisans to create one.

Candidates in the 2008 U.S. elections spent as much money on their campaigns as it cost to build the nuclear submarine USS Jimmy Carter.

At any given moment, there are 10 quintillion individual insects on Earth — flies, mosquitoes, beetles, bees, etc.

There are 785 million illiterate adults in the world, and two-thirds of them are women.

The oldest zoomorphic structure in the U.S. is Lucy the Elephant, a former hotel in Margate, N.J.

The first e-book was the Declaration of Independence, typed into a computer in 1971 by the founder of Project Gutenberg.

Excerpt: 'All Facts Considered'

All Facts Considered
All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge
By Kee Malesky
Hardcover, 288 pages
Wiley
List price: $19.95

Eighteenth-Century Networking

Paul Revere wasn't the only man out for a midnight ride on April 18, 1775. With the news that British soldiers were on the march, Revere initiated an eighteenth-century form of networking. Part of a broad social circle, Revere knew everyone of import, and everyone knew him. As he rode from town to town, he alerted local leaders, who called out their militias and additional messenger relays.

At Lexington, Revere warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock that they might be in danger of arrest; more riders were dispatched, and the news quickly spread. Within a few hours, word of the redcoats' military incursion had traveled more than thirty miles. Hundreds of colonial militia headed for Lexington and Concord.

The previous September, the Massachusetts colonials had been taken unaware when British troops mounted a secret raid on the powder stores at Somerville. Rumors spread that people had been killed and war had started, and soon men were pouring onto the roads toward Boston in what became known as the Powder Alarm. Not wanting to be surprised again, the provincials refined and expanded the alarm system. It proved very effective at Lexington and Concord seven months later, as the American Revolution began.

Built by Bondage

Washington D.C., the "capital of the free world, " was built primarily by slaves. It was a sparsely populated region in the 1790s, so massive efforts were required to turn the bucolic area between Rock Creek and the Anacostia River (then called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac) into a capital city by 1800. Since there weren't sufficient white laborers to handle the huge construction project, local slaveholders hired out their slaves for the task.

The District of Columbia became a major hub for the American slave trade until Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery there in 1862. Twelve U.S. presidents were slave owners. In July 2009, Congress passed a resolution that instructed the architect of the Capitol to place a marker in the visitor center to acknowledge that "No narrative on the construction of the Capitol that does not include the contribution of enslaved African Americans can fully and accurately reflect its history. "The marker is made from stone that was quarried by slaves.

Battling for Booze

The ancient Celts knew how to ferment and distill grains in the first millennium BCE, and their uisge beatha, or "water of life," is now called whisky (in Scotland and Canada) or whiskey (in Ireland and the United States). The spelling difference is considered significant by distillers and drinkers because the process and the ingredients vary. In 1794, one of the first antigovernment protests in the United States was the Whiskey Rebellion, a demonstration against a tax that had been levied on distilled spirits to help pay off the national debt from the Revolutionary War. Whiskey, to the early Americans, was "an informal currency, a means of livelihood, and an enlivener of a harsh existence," so they strongly resisted the tax.

After some violent incidents in western Pennsylvania, President Washington mustered a citizens' army of thirteen thousand men and accompanied them to Carlisle as they mobilized. He didn't see any action, however, because he returned to Philadelphia and put Governor Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee of Virginia and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (the tax had been his idea) at the head of the army as it rounded up and arrested the suspected leaders. The insurrection quickly ended, and the tax was repealed in 1803.

Presidential Secrets Revealed

James Madison and Zachary Taylor were second cousins. Madison's grandfather, Ambrose, married Frances Taylor in 1721; she was the sister of Zachary Taylor, the future president's grandfather.

Madison was the shortest president so far — only five feet four inches.

John Quincy Adams was the first chief executive to be photographed, but it was after he left office.

Martin Van Buren was the first president to be born in the United States; all the earlier presidents were born in the colonies.

The only president who never married was James Buchanan, although he came close in 1819. His fiancée, Anne Caroline Coleman, called off the nuptials and died a week later, possibly by suicide. Buchanan never commented on his relationship with her.

William McKinley was the first president to ride in an automobile.

Warren G. Harding was the first president to speak over the radio.

To the Pacific

In January 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent a secret message to Congress, requesting funds for an expedition to explore the western areas of the continent. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began preparing their Corps of Discovery in the summer, after the announcement of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson's instructions to Clark included this directive: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce." The Corps supplied itself with three boats; two horses; hatchets; mosquito curtains; twelve pounds of soap; fifty dozen "Rush's Thunderclapper" pills and other medicines; rifles and gunpowder; navigational instruments; mirrors, combs, handkerchiefs, tobacco, and face paint as gifts for Native Americans; several books, maps, and tables for finding longitude and latitude; and other gear that cost about $ 2,300 in total.

After traveling through what today are about a dozen states, from Illinois to Oregon, on November 7, 1805, Clark wrote in his journal, "We are in view of the opening of the Ocian, which Creates great joy. This great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See. and the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey Shores (as I Suppose) may be heard distictly." They were actually looking at the wide estuary of the Columbia River; they reached the Pacific a few weeks later. The complete trip covered about eight thousand miles, and the explorers recorded and described hundreds of species of plants and animals that had previously been unknown to science.

Melancholy Meriwether

Meriwether Lewis did not enjoy the glory of his accomplishment; in his mind, the great expedition had been a failure. The hoped-for goal — finding an easy all-water passage through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean — was not met; he thought that the Great Plains were too arid for farming; and some of the Native Americans they encountered were unfriendly and resistant to settlers or trading. Lewis was depressed, malarial, drinking heavily, taking opium and snuff, and facing financial ruin. He had attempted suicide at least twice.

On the night of October 11, 1809, at Grinder's Inn on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, Lewis shot himself in the head, but he was only slightly wounded. With a second pistol, he then fired a shot into his chest, but that didn't kill him, either. At dawn, servants found him cutting himself with a razor. He died just after sunrise and was buried on the site of the inn.

When William Clark heard the news, he wrote, "I fear, O I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him." A few years later, Thomas Jefferson described Meriwether Lewis this way: "Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction . . . of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves."

Excerpted from All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge by Kee Malesky. Copyright 2010 by Kee Malesky. Excerpted by permission of Wiley.

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