Happy senior woman with books in library

I grew up with the internet and computer. My elementary school days included certain blocks of time when we would march over to the computer lab and play games to hone our typing skills. In middle school, we searched online for answers to our book reports while high school brought forth typing papers with a proper source citing. In college, I was expected to turn in my major papers over the internet, and today I work entirely on my computer, researching every inch of the web for article inspiration. (In fact, I’m doing it right this minute).

But it hasn’t always been like that. “Lemme Google that,” didn’t become a common phrase until the 2000s; only a few short years after the world-wide-web became available for the public to use. Before that, you had to actually open up a book. Yes, people would actually walk or drive to their nearest library and look through books to find the answers to their questions. Or better yet, ask their local librarian.

The New York Public Library, which has been open since 1895, is the largest public library system in the United States behind the Library of Congress. The library recently came across a box of old reference questions patrons asked the library between the 1940s and the 1980s, and they certainly show a look into life only a few decades ago. The NYPL has shared some of them on their Instagram, and let me tell you, some are these are questions I still have nowadays.

According to NPR, Librarian Rosa Caballero-Li shares that the NYPL’s Reference and Research Services desk still receives about 100 questions daily. “You can find a lot of information online, of course, and that’s great,” Rosa shares. “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.”

The service is notably called, Ask NYPL, and includes a reference service you can access via email, phone or even in person. While most phone calls today are questions about the library itself, “I can’t get on my library account”, “How do I get a library card?”, there are people who use the team of librarians to ask questions that Google can’t find easily. In fact, some researchers have nicknamed the staff as “human Google”.

Library researcher, Matthew J. Boylan, shared with The New York Times the wide array of questions he gets asked daily. “In a certain sense, the work I do begins where the Internet ends,” Mr. Boylan said. “Certain things you can’t find with Google.” One time he was asked about lease information from an elderly tenant who needed information that day to prevent being evicted. Another time he was contacted by a New York City police officer trying to talk a suicidal teen off a bridge. He was able to track her name through the library system and find the phone numbers of her parents, ultimately saving her.

The next time you find yourself stuck on a question, think about asking your local library before asking Siri or Alexa.

Watch: Take a Scenic Train Ride Across the U.S. for $213

Lyndsay Burginger is a food and lifestyle writer as well as the Managing Editor of Wide Open Eats. Lyndsay has worked for companies such as America's Test Kitchen and Disney, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Culinary Arts. When she's not writing or cooking you can find Lyndsay traveling ...Read more
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