May 29, 2015
NYPL releases the weirdest reference questions from the 1940s-1980s
by Kirsten Reach
Librarians’ patience has been tested at least as long as there have been libraries. Oh, and as long as there have been people. People to bother them. People who need help putting up wallpaper, keeping octopi in their bathtubs, or musing about the meaning of life.
In December, the New York Public Library began to share reference questions from an old box with small handwritten, or sometimes typewritten, cards. They’ve been doled out over Instagram with the hashtag #letmelibrarianthatforyou.
Marianne Tatepo of The Guardian began to compile some of the strangest questions from the NYPL Instagram feed, and there are so many gems. Beyond those pictured above, here are questions from Gothamist:
- 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 use of the public? Answer: No sir! (1966)
- What did women use for shopping bags 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). (NYPL adds: We also had requests to rent a guillotine.)
- What is the life span of an eyelash? Answer: Based on the book Your Hair and Its Care, it’s 150 days.
- Does the Bible have a copyright?
- How do you put up wallpaper?
- What percentage of all bathtubs in the world are in the US?
Librarians at the NYPL explained in Gothamist, “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).”
They get about 1,700 questions like this per year. (Good god.) Have a relaxing weekend, librarians.
Always wondered where Iam Stuck’s classic book would be shelved.
How did the librarian answer?
Someone has ended up with a surplus of pine needles.
Everybody knows this one: it’s Elmer Fudd.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, but it’s been a lot of years between this query and that title’s publication.
This one’s a little hard to read: [Question:] Could you tell me the thickness of a U.S. Postage Stamp with the glue on it? [Answer:] Sorry we couldn’t tell you that quickly, why don’t you try the post office. [Reply:] This is the post office.
Wonder how that Valentine’s Day card went over in 1944.
See also: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
“So many squirrels”!
Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.