Before The Internet, Librarians Would 'Answer Everything' — And Still Do The New York Public Library recently came upon a box of questions posed to the library from the 1940s to the '80s — an era when humans consulted other humans for answers to their daily questions.
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Before The Internet, Librarians Would 'Answer Everything' — And Still Do

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Before The Internet, Librarians Would 'Answer Everything' — And Still Do

Before The Internet, Librarians Would 'Answer Everything' — And Still Do

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/373268931/373587938" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Before Google, there was that paragon of accuracy and calm - the librarian. Now it may not have been as quick to get the answers to your pressing questions, but you might have had a better chance of getting it right.

Now, the librarians at the New York Public Library recently came upon a box of old reference questions from the 1940s to the 1980s. Here is a salacious sample from New Year's Day 1967. (Reading) I unexpectedly stayed over somewhere last night. Is it appropriate to send a thank-you? Librarian Rosa Caballero-Li is here to answer some of our questions about those questions. She's the manager of Ask NYPL in the library's Reference and Research Services department. And she's at our New York Bureau. Welcome.

ROSA CABALLERO-LI: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So first of all, do think there was a big difference in the kinds of questions that people were asking? What were people asking?

CABALLERO-LI: One of the postcards of our five-minute period on the telephone, a librarian wrote what is the name of Napoleon's horse? Date of opening baseball seasons. Who were the Sutherland sisters? And books on human combustion.

WERTHEIMER: Human combustion. (Laughter). And how were those questions submitted?

CABALLERO-LI: These were over the telephone so one librarian recorded these questions while she was on telephone duty.

WERTHEIMER: What is great about much of these kinds of questions is that it's not always just a question of getting a fact right or wrong. It's not fact checking. It's etiquette, it's opinion.

CABALLERO-LI: Right. So these are more of the who do you trust to ask these questions to? And of course, it's your librarian. They can give you an honest, factual opinion. For us, what's interesting about these questions is that, yes, they were found in the 1940s, but these are questions that we are answering still today and we will probably be answering tomorrow as well.

WERTHEIMER: What is the name of Napoleon's horse?

CABALLERO-LI: Yep. One of the questions that we got on Christmas Eve actually this year is can a mouse swallow a pearl? And for that one, we actually had to call a vet.

WERTHEIMER: That was Rosa Caballero-Li, manager of Ask NYPL in the New York Public Library's Reference and Research Services department.

Here at NPR, we have our own librarians who have to answer our questions. NPR librarian Camille Salas reminded us of some of the more interesting requests.

CAMILLE SALAS, BYLINE: Is that a picture of a goat or a sheep? How do you pronounce Matcha tea? What is the plural of Walkman? Was "Green Eggs And Ham" ever banned in China? What is the name of the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" theme song? I need sounds of underwater bubbles.

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