Libraries have a tough job justifying their place in a noisy modern world. The peaceful surroundings of a periodicals section, punctuated only by the sound of turning pages or gentle coughing of fellow readers, is a world away from the quick endorphin hit of social media with news feeds and notifications scrolling past our eyes.
Bridging these two worlds is difficult for everyone, even if you’re national institution and sometime Ghostbusters’ filming location the New York Public Library.
The first in the series. Photo via NYPL, available here.
Since the turn of the year, the NYPL has been trawling their archives and posting images of sometimes crumbled and often yellowed index cards, on which they recorded the questions they were asked by members of the public.
The result, hashtagged against #letmelibrarianthatforyou, is a window into the curious minds of the public of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
What we find, reassuringly, is that people haven’t changed all that much. The only difference is that when previous generations asked difficult, desperate or awkward questions, they asked a librarian, not Google.
There’s a powerful, relatable humanity there.
One query, received by phone on February 14, 1944 asked: “Is it good poetry where every other line rhymes, instead of having each line rhyme with the one before it?”
It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a frantic fiance, caught short by the sudden realisation that it’s Valentine’s Day.
Other queries verge on the ridiculous. A couple of weeks before the Valentine’s request, on January 27 1944, a caller asked the kind of question that PRs desperately trying to add colour to dull press releases ask Google all the time: “What percent of all the bathtubs in the world, are in the United States?”
All bricks and mortar businesses, particularly those established well before the advent of the internet, struggle to work out how it fits with what they do, and what their place is in a world that’s increasingly connected.
Libraries, particularly those of the stature of the New York Public Library saw their most obvious purpose – a source of information – rendered completely defunct by search engines, and their place as a source of entertainment has also been undercut by digital media.
As a campaign, #letmelibrarianthatforyou is a simple one – once a week or so they post another index card, from a stash discovered in a recipe box marked ‘Interesting Reference Questions’.
As a message, #letmelibrarianthatforyou is very strong – it reinforces the role the New York Public Library plays in society. Where once it was a source of information and entertainment, it’s now a cultural touchstone, a link to national heritage and a hub for art and thought – for pondering humanity, civilisation and where we go next.
They’ve not given up on their original purpose though. The NYPL twitter bio reads: Inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, strengthen communities. Got a question? Send us a tweet, text us at 66746, or call 917-ASK-NYPL.
So, amongst the chance to meet authors, take up new hobbies, learn new skills, listen to musicians and get career advice, you can still ask questions – and read books.
For more interesting reference questions, check out the hashtag – and, um, go visit your local library.