Ask a Librarian

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Ask a Librarian

Sunday February 18, 2018 Written by Chris

Library questions

Hard to believe, but there was a time when you couldn’t pull a device out of your pocket, ask it a question and get an intelligible answer.

What you could do, though, was visit a library and, if you couldn’t locate the answer in one of its books, ask a kindly librarian to do so for you. (They are sort of like human search engines, after all).

When librarians were asked something novel or difficult, they’d often write the question down on a piece of card and file it away for future reference. A box of these cards from the '40s was recently unearthed at the New York Public Library, and they’re every bit as hilarious as you’d expect somebody’s Google queries from 50 years ago to be.

A litany of the quandaries that kept our forefathers up at night, the questions range from the serious ("Is there a law whereby a child can become unrelated to its parent if they don’t like each other?", 1961) to the inane ("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?", 1976).

Library questions

While some of the questions are clearly products of the times in which they were asked ("Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce?", 1945), others trace a common thread connecting us as a species through time ("What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?", 1947). One can only imagine how a librarian, busy navigating the Dewey Decimal System and shushing beatniks, would have responded, but these cards show that they did at least try.

New York Public Library questions

New York Public Library questions

Library 6

New York Public Library questions

The New York Public Library has been posting these cards on their Instagram account. They are also still answering questions, should you have any Google can't.