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Before Google, Here's What New Yorkers Asked The NYPL


Google doesn't know either. (via the NYPL)

Recently some folks at the New York Public Library discovered a box containing old reference questions from the 1940s to 1980s. They'll be posting the questions to their Instagram account on Mondays (starting today), but have shared a bunch with us today, noting, "we were Google before Google existed." (On that note, Neil Gaiman once pointed out, "Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.")

Check out what people wanted to know decades ago, below—the NYPL has included answers and dates with some:

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via the NYPL

  • Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?
  • I just saw a mouse in the kitchen. Is DDT OK to use? (1946)
  • Does NYPL have a computer for us of the public? Answer: No sir! (1966)
  • What did women use for shopping backs before paper bags?
  • Are black widow spiders more harmful dead or alive?
  • Is it proper to go to Reno alone to get a divorce? (1945)
  • Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
  • Can NYPL recommend a good forger?
  • Where can I rent a beagle for hunting (1963). We also had requests to rent a guillotine.
  • Has the gun with which Oswald shot President Kennedy been returned to the family?
  • What is the life span of an eyelash? Answer: Based on the book Your hair and its care, it's 150 days.

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via the NYPL

  • What is the life span of an eyebrow hair?
  • Does the Bible have a copyright?
  • What percentage of all bathtubs in the world are in the US?
  • Can you tell me the thickness of a US Postage stamp with the glue on it? Answer: We cannot get this answer quickly. Perhaps try the Postal Service. Response: This is the Postal Service.
  • What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?
  • How do you put up wallpaper?

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via the NYPL

  • A question from New Year's Day 1967: I unexpectedly stayed over somewhere last night. Is it appropriate to send a thank you?
  • What's the difference between pig and pork?
  • What kind of glass should I use in my greenhouse in Cuba?
  • Can mice throw up?

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via the NYPL

These were all asked either via phone or in person, and we're told, "The system back then was the same as today, in that we tried to answer right away. While we're not 100 percent sure how certain questions wound up in this box, they seem to be questions that we didn't have an answer to at the time (for example, at least one question was put in the box in the 1940s, and then answered in the 1970s)."

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via the NYPL

People still use an updated version of this, called Ask NYPL, and the library says they receive about 1,700 reference questions a month via chat, email, and phone.

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