Librarian Kee Malesky Considers 'All Facts' For NPR

Kee Malesky i i

hide captionListeners hear "Kee Malesky" as a variety of things when hosts read her name on-air. Some hear Keema Leski, Kim Alesky or Kay Marlenski.

NPR
Kee Malesky

Listeners hear "Kee Malesky" as a variety of things when hosts read her name on-air. Some hear Keema Leski, Kim Alesky or Kay Marlenski.

NPR

Do you know why ice forms on the top of a pond? Or that "red" hair isn't really red?

Kee Malesky does. The venerable NPR librarian has been dubbed "the source of all human knowledge."

She shares her fact-finding prowess with the world in a new book, All Facts Considered: The Essential Library Of Inessential Knowledge.

Malesky has spent her entire career as a librarian at NPR, where the collection of physical books is quite small. "At its largest, our book collection was maybe 3,000 volumes," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "And it's entirely a reference collection, so we don't have novels or travel books."

These days, the collection of actual books numbers in the hundreds.  They're mostly reference books, such as an unabridged dictionary — and are kept on hand for backup in case NPR computers go down, or the power is out. "And then there are still a few of our users who do like to use print," Malesky says.

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

But many of the answers Malesky seeks can be found by directly contacting sources. For example, if she was asked to compile a list of famous individuals with only one eye, as one librarian was, she wouldn't hit the books, or even Google. She'd contact the Society for the Blind, "because probably their librarian would know that."

Malesky says it's one of the first lessons she learned from the journalists with whom she works: Always turn to an expert, she says, "because there's somebody out there whose job it is to know the thing you need. And they're just waiting for us to call."

The advent of the Internet has had a profound influence on the way Malesky does her job. "But it doesn't mean you don't still need the same skills that I learned in library school before everything was in the computer," she says.

Whether she's consulting the Internet or an actual book, Malesky insists "it's still about evaluating and looking closely at the sources, and being sure that what you're finding is still the best information."

That can mean the easiest answer to find isn't the best answer. "As anyone who uses Google knows, that's not necessarily going to be on that first page of results." She often finds herself clicking through pages and pages of results, till she lands on "the absolutely perfect appropriate primary source, with current information that seems nice and comprehensive."

And in that way, says Malesky, the research is about perseverance, just like it's always been.


Still wondering about why ice forms on the top of a pond?  Or why "red" isn't really red?  Here are Malesky's explanations:

On ice: "Ice is less dense than water, and that's why it forms on the top of rivers and lakes rather than on the bottom."

On red hair: "The hair color inaccurately referred to as red is the rarest human hair color; only 1 to 2 percent of the population enjoys the privilege of "red" hair, which has existed for only the last 40,000 years."

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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