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Questions people asked librarians before the Internet

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An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
In 1947, a patron asked the New York Public Library: "What does it mean when you dream you're being chased by the an elephant?" Psychotherapist Carl Jung theorized that elephants can be the representation of the self in dreams.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Admit it: Your search history is full of weird questions.

And why not? The Internet puts millions of facts at your fingertips, like: "What was George Washington's middle name?" (A trick question: he didn't have one.)

In the days before the Internet, though, the library was your best bet for filling in those gaps in your knowledge. The search engines were real, live humans, flipping through pages and microfilm to find the answers.

The New York Public Library has been fielding such questions for more than a century. Librarians in the '40s, '50s and '60s wrote down some of their favorite queries — and the library has been sharing them on Instagram, much to everyone's delight, tagged #letmelibrarianthatforyou

Other libraries, including the Hennepin County library system, have also started sharing questions from their archives.

Behold, the great wonders of the pre-Internet age.

"I really need to know..."

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
What percentage of all the bathtubs in the world are in the U.S.?
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

It seems there's no official global bath tub count. How about a substitute tub fact? The Titanic had only 2 bath tubs for the 1,000 passengers in third class.

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
Question: What is the natural enemy of a duck? Librarian: What do you mean? Q: Well, a whole flight of them landed in my pool and I have waved a broom at them but all they do is look at me and quack. I thought I could introduce the natural enemy into the pool area.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Snakes, hawks, eagles and weasels eat ducks, to name a few predators. No word on how friendly they would be in the pool.

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance?
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

According to The Smithsonian, "Each of hula's movements has a meaning that helps tell a story about gods and goddesses, nature or important events."

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
How much did Napoleon's brain weigh?
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

According to an 1898 article in Popular Science Monthly, Napoleon's brain weighed somewhere between 50 and 53.6 ounces. That's slightly higher than average.

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
Why do 18th century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so they wouldn't bite the painter?
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Domesticated squirrels were common in the Middles Ages and the Renaissance, according to "Medieval Pets." As several portraits suggest, this practice continued into the 18th century.

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
Is there a law in NYC whereby a child can become unrelated to its parents if they don't like each other?
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Librarian or lawyer?

An patron's inquiry to the New York Public Library
A woman wanted "inspirational material on grass and lawns."
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

The New York Public Library still takes questions from the public — ASK NYPL fields almost 10,000 queries a month by phone, email and online chat. The Internet, of course, has changed the kinds of questions people ask.

Rosa Caballero-Li is the manager of ASK NYPL. She says they get a lot of questions from people who don't have access to the Internet or can't find what they want through online searches. ASK NYPL frequently gives out information about job resources and career advancement opportunities.

But odd questions still come in. In May a reader called in, stumped by a slang word. The word was "jennysweeter," from "Church of Marvels," a book set in 1890s New York. Was "jennysweeter" a real word?, the reader what to know. 

The ASK NYPL staff dug through slang dictionaries, newspaper archives and other records. Finally, they thought: Why not just ask the author? They looked up Leslie Parry, who confirmed that she'd invented the term. "It was a work of fiction," said Caballero-Li. "They can make things up."

Other questions hit a personal note. One caller was coming to visit New York City and wanted to see the place where her parents had met. She only had a few scattered pieces of information to work from: the name of an old restaurant, long since closed, and the year, 1946. 

Using old phone directories and newspaper archives, ASK NYPL was able to pinpoint the intersection and send the caller to the sentimental spot.

In the age of easy information access, there is still one thing the library has over the Internet: trust. "People trust in the information that a librarian can provide," said Caballero-Li.

Some questions, however, might stump both the Internet and librarians. Consider this little gem from Hennepin County Library's Instagram feed:

An patron's inquiry the Hennepin County library
Music suitable for a doll wedding to take place between a Shirley Temple doll and a Teddy bear.
Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library