If you were born before about 1990, it may be hard to imagine a time when life’s puzzles couldn’t be answered instantly by consulting the Internet. But long before personal computers existed (in fact, long before most Americans even had telephones) the New York Public Library provided a free service that allowed anyone to call and ask a question about anything and get the well-researched answer from a librarian. All you had to do was telephone the main branch and ask to speak to a librarian and he/she would duly research the answer to your question and get it to you, within a few minutes. Though the service was intended primarily for academic questions, it quickly became a resource for questions about etiquette, trivia and even shopping tips.
Very Strange Questions for the NYPL
In 2014, the New York Public Library began sharing some of the millions of phone inquiries from over the years and, as you might imagine, they range from the academic to the very, very odd. Some callers even managed to combine the academic and odd. A sampling, from various decades:
“Why do 18th century English paintings have so many squirrels in them and did they tame them so they wouldn’t bite the painter?”
“What does it mean when you dream you’re being chased by an elephant?”
“I went to a New Year’s Eve Party and unexpectedly stayed over. I don’t really know the hosts. Ought I to send a thank-you note?”
“Can you please translate ‘You have to go a long way to fool your uncle Dudley’ into Greek?”
“What country has the highest number of honorable women?” (The librarian noted the answer as “Ah, well, it’s a matter of definition, isn’t it?)”
It may be hard to believe that a public library was willing to answer any and all questions on any and all topics but the most amazing part of this service is that it still exists. Yes, it still exists. You can still call or use webchat to contact the New York Public Library with any question and they will do their best to answer it. We didn’t believe it either, so we gave it a try.
History: New York City’s First Truly Public Library
At the turn of the 20th century, New York had 2 libraries: the Astor and Lenox libraries, but neither was free and both specialized in particular types of books. It was not until 1911 that the largest city in the U.S. got its first truly free and public library.
In 1886, former New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden left $2.4 million in his will to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.” The bequest, plus the consolidation of the Astor and Lenox libraries with the new, larger library set in motion the planning for what would become one of the greatest libraries in the world. The library that now stands at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, on the former site of the Croton Reservoir, took 25 years to complete.
- The Library stands on the site of a Revolutionary War battle.
- Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in the Library’s Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room.
- The winter following the stock market crash of 1929 was the most active period in the Library’s history, with as many as 1,000 people in the Main Reading Room, a standing room only capacity.
- One of the oldest pieces of memorabilia in the New York Public Library is a 1493 unique copy of Columbus’s letter announcing his discovery of the New World.
- The vast NYPL collections contain various literary artifacts, including: Charles Dickens’ favorite letter-opener, Truman Capote’s cigarette case, Jack Kerouac’s crutches and a lock of Walt Whitman’s hair.
NYPL Today: A System in Crisis
In 2010, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the largest funding cut in the library’s history: $37 million. And in 2014, a plan to sell the library’s iconic main branch to real estate developers was met with public furor and abandoned. But the NYPL is still in dire straits financially. Several advocacy groups and the library itself have started a campaign to convince the current mayor of New York, Bill Di Blasio, to restore funding to the beleagured NY library system. The public petition reads, in part, “…over the past decade, City funding for libraries has been cut by nearly 20% and library staff has been reduced by nearly 1,000 workers. At the same time, demand for libraries has never been higher. Circulation is up 34%, attendance at programs and classes has more than doubled, and libraries receive more visits than all local sports teams and City-owned cultural institutions combined. It’s time to reverse years of neglect and provide appropriate funding for libraries.”
For more information on the petition and campaign, visit the NYPL’s Speak Out Website.