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Librarians were the world's search engine for questions before the age of the internet

No matter how much technology goes, there are some things and moments in life where the human touch is necessary.

Librarians were the world's search engine for questions before the age of the internet
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Suzy Hazelwood

The current generation has no idea about the struggle of life without such easy access to the whole world through the internet. Today, if even a simple question like whether tomato is a fruit or a vegetable arises, we all collectively go to Google or Yahoo or any search engine and fill in our query. Now, you might be wondering where people get the answers to their questions from. The answer is simple and that is the librarians. However, this was not always the case.

Representative Image Source; Pexels | cottonbro studio
Representative Image Source; Pexels | Cottonbro studio

National Public Radio mentioned how librarians were our responsive search engines and how it worked. Sometime around 2015, the New York Public Library discovered and eventually showcased a big box of questions they happened to come across. These questions were addressed to the librarians back in time. They were from the 1940s to the 1980s and were quite literally a secret pathway to the past. It was probably an era when people needed others' assistance to know more about the things around them. 


According to this article, many new things came into the picture. For example, a "somewhat uncertain female voice" once called the radio and said, "I went to a New Year's Eve party and unexpectedly started over. I don't know the hosts. Ought you send a thank-you note?" Some of the other questions asked by people included, "Name of Napoleon's horse," "Name of a wing maker in Miami" and "Date of opening of baseball season in N.Y."

While someone asked about book suggestions for spontaneous combustion, another person asked who the Seven Sutherland Sisters are. Not just that, people also enquire about random things like how many neurotic people exist in the United States of America or the life cycle of eyebrow hair. One person wanted to know how to put up wallpaper and called the librarian and said, "I have the paper; I have the paste. What do I do next? Does the paste go on the wall or the paper?"

Librarian Rosa Caballero-Li of the New York Public Library said they would receive about a hundred calls daily in the past and these questions went beyond the realms of fact-checking and extended into questions of etiquette, opinion, contact information and even shopping. In a conversation with Linda Wertheimer of NPR, Cabarello-Li said, "We answer everything. Patrons can call us and reach out to us for anything they feel curious about, any service that people need - and I think that surprises a lot of people." The librarian said some questions about etiquettes and behaviors are still asked via these letters or calls to the New York Public Library. She also adds that people ask questions about the Bible around Christmas, mostly to understand how to download the ebook.

While many people still call libraries because they don't have access to the internet, some call just to get a definitive answer after the internet confuses them. She ends by saying, "You can find a lot of information online, of course, and that's great. But when you can't, or when you have too many answers, or you can't quite distinguish fact from fiction, that's when you reach out to us." After all, no matter how smart the internet is, answers to some questions earn good results only if they're asked by a real human being.


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