Have you ever wondered why 18th century English paintings have so many squirrels in them? If so, we applaud your curious mind ― and we’d also like to let you know that there’s a number to call if you want to ask a research librarian: 917-ASK-NYPL.
The New York Public Library has offered this service since the 1960s. In the video above, from Great Big Story, manager Rosa Caballero-Li shows off her team’s question-answering prowess and explains why she thinks they still receive tens of thousands of calls a year ― not to mention emails and chats ― despite the inexorable rise to market dominance of Ask Jeeves. (OK, fine, Google.) “I honestly think some just want somebody to talk to,” she explains. Besides, not everyone has access to Bing and Google at home, even in 2016.
Although Google certainly has its place, that doesn’t take away the value of working with a trained librarian, who has dedicated their life to helping people find the best and most thorough information. Rather than sifting through search results, you can take advantage of your local librarian’s skills ― or those of the Ask NYPL staff ― and have them filter out the good info from the bad, zip straight to a reliable source, or give you your answer in a way that makes clear sense of the jumble of data on a Google result page.
Manned by a team of librarians and assistants, the line typically fields logistical questions about the NYPL’s resources and policies, but it’s also a reference service library patrons can use to find out more about any topic. In addition to the phone line, Ask NYPL accepts questions via snail mail, chat and email.
Research librarians aren’t magic, of course, and they don’t carry encyclopedic knowledge of the world in their brains. If the space of a phone call isn’t enough to track down resources from the library to answer the question, or if the question can’t be answered by consulting the library, they do have another trick up their sleeves.
In a Quartz article about the service, writer Thu-Huong Ha put a particularly vague and tricky archived question to Caballero-Li: “How many neurotic people in the U.S.?” Ultimately, “Caballero-Li Googles the question. She reads to me over the phone from an article from Psychology Today.”
Even if the NYPL librarians and research assistants can’t offer more specific data from library resources, they can provide one other service: A non-passive-aggressive Let Me Google That For You; a literal Human Googler to help you use the search engine with a librarian’s savvy.
Basically, Ask NYPL is “Human Google” because librarians have been human Googles for way longer than the internet. Maybe it’s time to start calling search engines “Internet Librarians.”