Photo Essays

What People Asked the New York Public Library Before Google

“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?” It’s easy to find answers to such perplexing questions today.

(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)

“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?” It’s easy to find answers to such perplexing questions today. A quick Google search explains that squirrels were once desirable pets, and that domesticating them could be achieved in six simple steps.

But in 1976, when the question was first posed to a librarian at the New York Public Library (NYPL), the internet hadn’t yet made everything ridiculously easy. Unable to answer the query, the bemused librarian who received it typed it onto a reference card and filed it away.

Recently, a staff member found the recipe box (labeled “Interesting Reference Questions”) containing it and hundreds others asked between the 1940s and 1980s while cleaning out a desk. NYPL has since been posting pictures of its contents to Twitter and Instagram under the hashtag #LetMeLibrarianThatForYou.

“People came to the library for reference, but also for info on buying and selling, looking for inspiration, crafty project ideas, and even to find photos,” it wrote. “In a world pre-Google, librarians weren’t just Wikipedia, they were people’s Craiglist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Instagram all rolled into one.”

The library told Gothamist that while it always tries to answer such inquiries right away, the ones in the box were likely those for which it didn’t have an immediate response. Some are amusing (“Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?”), while others are heartbreaking (“Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce?”). Seen together, they’re a testament to what might be one of humankind’s greatest attributes — our unquenchable curiosity.

(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
(Image courtesy of the New York Public Library)
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