For decades before Google existed New Yorkers called their local libraries to ask about everything from etiquette to bedbugs. Yet even with smartphones and the Internet now at our fingertips, not much has changed.
The New York Public Library still receives up to 300 questions each day to its “Ask NYPL” reference number, according to a library spokeswoman. And while many of those questions may be typical research inquiries, some tend to be a little more … unique.
“We take all questions and we try to answer it to the best of our ability,” said Rosa Caballero-Li, who runs the Ask NYPL reference department. “People always think of the library [as a place] where information can be accessible for free. And I think that’s still the case today.”
Recently, Caballero-Li said someone called to ask what a professor’s specialty would be considered if it involved the study of vampires. In another call, someone wanted to know how much they should spend on a wedding gift for a destination wedding. Just this week, someone called to ask how long food remains in your stomach.
From the 1940s to 80s, libraries filed away the most oddball questions they were asked. And inquiries about proper social cues was a big topic from the midcentury were very popular.
“People still have questions about etiquette,” Caballero-Li said.” “Oftentimes they are working on personal research. But sometimes they might see something on the news or might just wonder about something — it might be something that you and I would go to our smartphones and look it up, but not everyone has access [to Internet].”
A glimpse into the city’s history through the cataloged cards reveals New Yorkers had some similar concerns — and some odd requests — as their counterparts today.
A 1951 request for the “history of manhole covers” was logged on “at 5 o’clock on [a] hot July afternoon.” While another person asked for “the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” in September 1944.
“Where in New York City can I rent a beagle for hunting?” someone asked in December 1963, which leads you to wonder exactly what they were trying to hunt.
The public library started sharing dozens of these questions from decades past on their Instagram page each Monday using the hashtag: #letmelibrarianthatforyou. And while they don’t make a point of writing them down like they used to, Caballero-Li said they still take all sorts of calls from all over the world.
Here are some other questions the library has gotten:
1)”Where in New York can I get an original gold nugget? 3/29/1966
2)”Reader approaches desk and says: ‘You’ll have to excuse me, I’m from New Jersey.'” 1/20/83
3)”Somewhat uncertain female voice: ‘I have two questions. The first is sort of an etiquette one. I went to a New Year’s Eve party and unexpectedly stayed over. I don’t really know the hosts. Ought I to send a thank-you note? Second, 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?'” Mid-afternoon 1/1/1967
4)”When writing to a sailor should one always spell the word ‘weigh’ as in ‘anchors aweigh’ out of courtesy, even when it is usually spelled ‘way.'” 4/7/45
5)”Where can I find something on the comical aspects of pregnancy?” 9/3/1962
6)”A Swiss manufacturer of baby carriages wanted to know whether the N. Y. P. L. didn’t have a list of expectant mothers.” 1/4/1949
7)”Why do 18th century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter?” 10/1976
8)”Terrified female voice: ‘What’ll I do — I just saw a mouse in my kitchen? Is DDT any good for ’em?’ Suggested she try a trap, she wailed, ‘O-o-oooo! I couldn’t pick up a dead mouse!'” 4/21/46
9)”Pigeon population of NY compared with sparrows population.” 8/1/1962
10)”A woman wanted ‘inspirational material on grass and lawns.'” 6/8/1955 (Who can afford a lawn in New York City? And I bet she would have appreciated Pintrest!)