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The New York Public Library’s little-known “human Google”

Does the Pope have to be a virgin?

If you’ve got fingers and a smart phone, it’s a simple matter of Googling to find out. (The answer is: No.) But there’s another, more congenial service that takes only a few jabs of the finger: Just call 917-ASK-NYPL, and a live librarian will try to answer your question, using vast archives collected over 120 years.

The New York Public Library’s questions desk serves as a catch-all for the venerable library system’s 92 locations. Though its purpose is logistical (How do I download ebooks from the library?), for many, it’s basically a human Google (How many British monarchs have been left-handed?).

Queries about news, science, and history come in about once an hour. People dial in with basic grammar questions or to figure out what Pinterest is. And a few callers treat the line like their own personal library-by-correspondence: Rosa Caballero-Li, manager of Ask NYPL, says there are at least five callers who phone-in frequently enough that she recognizes them. “They have us on speed dial,” she says.

Set up in the 1960s, the line is manned by nine librarians and information assistants. The team gets a lot of calls from people who want to fact-check things they’ve heard on the news, says Caballero-Li. “Around the time that Prince died, we had a caller who wanted to know if they had found out what the cause of his death was,” she recalls. Like everyone else, she says, “We just kept checking to see what the update on that was.”

“I would say like 75 to 80% are all about library services,” says Caballero-Li of the calls the team receives.

Since July 2015, the team has answered just shy of 60,000 phone calls. (They also fielded 20,000 emails, 17,000 chat messages, and 500 text messages. The department also gets one or two snail mail inquiries a month.)

Even before the establishment of Ask NYPL—and long before the creation of Google—people asked all sorts of questions of the NYPL’s librarians. The library keeps records of their most absurd and memorable questions, from phone calls and in-person queries, dating as far back as the 1940s.

 We posed a few of the more inscrutable vintage queries to today’s question-answering team, to see how they would explain the world to their inquisitive patrons. See below:
First appeared on Quartz

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