“Who built the English Channel?” and other questions posed to librarians


If we have a question about anything, however bizarre, the impulse for those of us with access to a computer would be to insert the query into a search engine and see what the internet throws up. But before that came into existence, people went to their neighborhood librarian and the January 2016 issue of Harper’s magazine has a list of some of the questions posed to the New York Public Library’s Reference and Research Services between 1940 and 1989.

Here are a few:

Do you have any books on human beings?
Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
Where can I rent a guillotine?
Is it proper to go alone to Reno to get a divorce?
What is the life span of an abandoned woman?
What country has the highest number of honorable women?
Do you have a list of buildings built in the shape of fruits or vegetables?
Do you have a list of historical characters who were in the right place at the right time?

And my favorite: “If the Empire State Building is the highest building in the world, what is the smallest?”

I have no idea how the librarians answered them but in my experience librarians are an amazing bunch of people who have incredible research skills. I took the easy way out and inserted the phrase “buildings built in the shape of fruits or vegetables” into Google and actually came up with a Wikipedia page on novelty architecture that listed some.

Comments

  1. hyphenman says

    Mano,

    Clearly, Gawd built the English Channel. 🙂

    Two of the books I keep next to my typewriters, and refer to often, are “The New York Public Library Desk Reference” and “The New York Public Library Science Desk Reference.”

    When I was a magazine editor I had the reference desk at the Cleveland Public Library Main location on speed dial and knew most of the reference librarian by name. They save me from embarrassment any number of times.

    Jeff

  2. moarscienceplz says

    PBS has actually aired a show called “A Program About Unusual Buildings & Other Roadside Stuff…” which included a house shaped like a shoe, a store shaped like a duck, and a water tower shaped like a giant catsup bottle. Maybe it was the guy who made that show trying to do research.
    Here in San Jose we have a hotdog stand that looks like an orange, but he didn’t put it in his show. San Jose never gets any respect.
    😉

  3. Johnny Vector says

    My mom was a reference librarian for many years. Apparently the hardest part of the job is figuring out what the patron actually wants to know. Most people, upon asking themselves a question, start down a path of branches and answers, and go to the library when they hit a leaf they don’t think they know. More often than not, one of the previous branches they took was incorrect, so the question they come in with is nonsensical. This may explain several of the sample questions.

  4. Steve Cameron says

    My fiancée works in Reference at our downtown public library and, as she will gladly tell you, they still get callers with strange questions and requests on a daily basis. Many of these calls come from a small number of patrons who are well known to them, generally elderly or poor–and often both–but always possessed of an intense curiosity and a poor understanding of the limits to the help Reference can provide.
    One lady well know to them called once from her cell phone while on a roadtrip. Her question: “I’m lost. Where am I?”

  5. StevoR says

    1. Do you have any books on human beings?
    2. Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
    3. Where can I rent a guillotine?
    4. Is it proper to go alone to Reno to get a divorce?
    5. What is the life span of an abandoned woman?
    6. What country has the highest number of honorable women?
    7. Do you have a list of buildings built in the shape of fruits or vegetables?
    8. Do you have a list of historical characters who were in the right place at the right time?
    9. If the Empire State Building is the highest building in the world, what is the smallest?”

    1.Yes.
    2. No
    3. What type?
    4. define “proper”
    5. Varies on the individual woman
    6. define “honourable”
    7. Scrolls up page – yep. Kinda.
    8. Hmm … define right place and time – for what?
    9. Depending on how you define “building” exactly this :

    If the Empire State Building is the highest building in the world, what is the smallest?”

    http://www.littleecofootprints.com/2014/05/how-to-build-a-native-solitary-bee-hotel.html

    would probably be a good contender for that honour.

    On a similar but nastier note you could also say Roach motel (insect traps – wikipedia) but they tend to get bad reviews from their “guests”so maybe not so much..

  6. says

    This explains the number of stupid phrases that appear in google’s autocomplete search bar. People stopped displaying their stupidity and libraries and started doing it online.

    http://stupidgooglequestions.com/

    I took the easy way out and inserted the phrase “buildings built in the shape of fruits or vegetables” into Google and actually came up with a Wikipedia page on novelty architecture that listed some.

    Lacking vocabulary for obscure terms isn’t a problem, that’s usually a lack of experience. (At least they’re curious enough to ask the question.) How many reading this know what art deco means? Probably some don’t. What amazes me is people who reach adulthood (never mind middle or old age) without understanding obvious things taught at a grade six level.

  7. StevoR says

    PS. Who built the English channel? Geology especially ice and sea level fluctuations. Perhaps there are also mythological answers depending ontehvarious cultures living around or in it. (By “in it” I mean those living on islands. Mostly I guess. Or really long term and slow channel swimmers?)

    As yáll might’ve seen from the links from the linked wikipedia page in the Opening Post here , Australia has a kinda thing for “Big things” i.e. novelty archetecture :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia%27s_big_things

    I’ve climbed and visited the World’s Biggest Rocking Horse :

    http://thetoyfactory.com.au/worlds-biggest-rocking-horse/

    and visited Larry the Big Lobster at Kingston :

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Lobster

    and no doubt other Aussies here can chime on on similar ones if they are so inclined as well.

  8. StevoR says

    @8. left0ver1under : “What amazes me is people who reach adulthood (never mind middle or old age) without understanding obvious things taught at a grade six level.”

    Surprised I have to point this out here of all places but NOT everyone is lucky enough to get a good education and many people have their educations disrupted by a whole range of things such as poverty, illnesses -diagnosed and not eg. dyslexia, learning difficulties, mental health, bad teachers, Creationism and the impact of religion warping educations, family circumstances (violence, antagonism, needing employment, regular moves) ad nauseam. That’s assuming they get the chance for an education at all. Then there are others who don’t pay attention at the time or choose to leave early because they aren’t happy at school for various reasons (e.g. bullying, personal preferences, class numbers and environment) etc .. Not all educations cover the same things too and individuals (Yes! We’re all individuals! I’m not!”) are almost always going to have their own various blindspots and areas they weren’t taught or don’t recall well and things that various folks have just missed out on.

    I was extremely fortunate with my education and my teachers despite my education being disrupted with several of those issues listed above. I still probably learnt a lot more through reading and researching on my own than I did at school. One or two of my brothers weren’t as lucky as me and were also affected by several of those issues. That’s just one family – and remember schooling has improved markedly over time and so older people (one or two generations ago) often left their education system much earlier and got taught far less and far worse than kids today – not always but often.

    That’s even before we get to the fact that what is “obvious” obviously (?!) varies greatly from person to person depending on their aptitudes and education and understandings. It depends on what “obvious” thing you are talking about here.

    So I’m not always – but admittedly sometimes surprised – as you are here depending on the specifics.

  9. Matt G says

    I remember when the study came out with evidence that the Channel had been carved out by water released when a massive ice dam broke. I was always careful not to call it a flood for obvious reasons….

  10. Nick Gotts says

    Had to be the romans. – Marcus Ranum

    No, no:

    Romans came across the Channel
    All wrapped up in tin and flannel.
    Half a pint of woad per man’ll
    Dress us more than these!

    (Sung to the tune of Men of Harlech, emphasis mine.)

  11. quotetheunquote says

    I have no idea how the librarians answered them but in my experience librarians are an amazing bunch of people who have incredible research skills. I took the easy way out and inserted the phrase “buildings built in the shape of fruits or vegetables” into Google and actually came up with a Wikipedia page on novelty architecture that listed some.

    I can’t believe it didn’t come up with the biggest vegetable in the world, the gherkin.*

    *Yes, I know it’s actually a fruit.

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