Thursday, January 15, 2015


I ran across a fascinating article by Hanna Kozlowska last week - Here’s What People Did Before They Could Google Things. It describes the discovery by the New York Public Library staff of a box of notecards with questions the librarians received from library patrons, either in person or over the phone, in the decades of the 1940s to the 1980s ... before the age of Google. Some of them are amazing, and give one a whole new respect for the research talents of underappreciated librarians.

In the decades ... if not centuries before the advent of the personal computer and the internet, it was the librarian who was the person to whom we turned as a source of information. She (and it usually was a she, wasn't it?) listened to our questions and steered us in the direction of what we needed to know. Libraries held tens of thousands of books arranged according to the impenetrable (to me, anyway) Dewey Decimal System, and it was the librarian who helped make sense of it all. And the librarians of the New York Public Library, using the hashtag #letmelibrarianthatforyou, are sharing on Instagram some of the more interesting questions from that box they found. Here's one ...

A few others, according to the article, included:

"... when you meet a fellow and you know he's worth twenty-seven million dollars because that's what the told me, twenty-seven million, and you know his nationality, how do you find out his name?"

- “My daddy owns the second oldest lighthouse in the country, where can I sell it?”

- “I would like to know the physical characteristics of Adolf Hitler. I think I’ve found him—he walks heavier on one foot and everything.”

- "What is the lifespan of an eyelash?"

- "How many neurotic people are there in the US?"*

I remember that when I got my master's degree in 1990, one of the required courses was an introduction to research methods ... teaching us how to find arcane information buried in the depths of the library. We learned where to go to answer questions like "what was the per capita production of beer in Ireland in 1968?," "what is the process by which laws are drafted and enacted in Botswana?," and "how many goats are raised each year in Afghanistan?" It was a frustrating, yet fun course that introduced us to a range of information sources we might not otherwise have known. Today, of course, you can Google that information and have your answers in seconds ... but you often don't know the provenance of that information, or you get so many hits that you can't figure out which to use.

Thus, the value of the librarian. As one of the librarians at the NYPL said in the article, “We have taken a role of bridging the gap between technology and information.” Google can provide vast amounts of information, but a librarian can help separate the informational wheat from the chaff of spam and narrow that glut of information down to the specific and accurate answers you need.

Librarians. They may not be your usual idea of superheroes ...

... but they've always been heroes to me.

Have a good day. If you don't know how, ask a librarian.

More thoughts tomorrow.


* I think whatever the number is, it will go up astronomically as the GOP presses its hardcore conservative agenda in the new Congress, and as the presidential election approaches.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

This is a fine tribute to librarians!

Linda Kay said...

What a fun post in tribute to the librarians. It was a trip down memory lane for me, having spent many hours in a library back in the day. We have a director at the library here who is not moving with the times....needs to move on! Even the seniors here are asking for more than he wants to provide.

The Bastard King of England said...

I have a lot of respect for librarians. Great post!

Leroy said...

Hooray for librarians and libraries.

Mike said...

I think a lot of older information still resides only in the library.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

Your post reminds me of this movie with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy called Desk Set. In a library setting these women answered calls like these questions you have on the post. Then Spencer tried to put a computer in this library and got the women in a tizzy. They were not happy about the impersonal aspect and they felt they could do it quicker. Oh how times have changed.
I'd take the library any day!

allenwoodhaven said...

Excellent post Bilbo. Each librarian truly is a hero.