If You Need a Question Answered and Google Is Down, There’s a Number You Can Call

Ever wonder what life was like before internet search engines like Google? How did people get answers to all-important questions like ‘what’s the average life expectancy of a frog’, or ‘is there a full moon every night in Acapulco?’ Many of them turned to the ‘ask a librarian’  phone service of the New York Public Library, and, believe it or not, some of them still do it today.

They are called the “human google”, a team of real-life people whose main purpose while on the job is to search 120-years worth of archives and provide answers to some of the strangest, most complicated questions available. Set up during the 1940s, when search engines and the internet weren’t even ideas yet, the Ask NYPL department is made up of nine librarians and information assistants who cater to the needs of people who don’t have access to modern technology or simply prefer to interact with another human being.

Photo: NYPL

Ask NYPL used to be much busier before Google became the go-to solution for pretty much any query, but even today, it still receives around 300 question a day — via telephone, email, chat or text message. The human search engines on duty check the library archives for answers, but don’t shy away from Googling the answer if they think it will speed up the process. “We love the fact that more and more things are online,” says Rosa Li, manager of the Ask NYPL service. “The computer is a tool for us, so the faster we can find an answer for somebody, the better.”

But even though the average Google search takes just 0.2 seconds, the human version is considerably slower, at about five minutes per call. Still, few, if any of the callers complain. Most of them are either not used to the internet anyway, while others just enjoy the conversation. “One of the number one comments that we get from callers is, ‘Thank God I’ve reached a human being,” Li says “Even on chat sometimes people will say, ‘Is this a robot or a person?’ We have to laugh and say, ‘I’m a real person.'”

As we all know from Google’s yearly reported search statistics, people sometimes ask the dumbest questions, and it’s apparently always been like this. The New York Library actually keeps a record of the funniest, most unusual questions people have its Ask NYPL operators since its inception, and some of them are pure gold:

  • What is the life span of an eyebrow hair?
  • Does the Bible have a copyright?
  • What percentage of all bathtubs in the world are in the US?
  • What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?
  • What’s the difference between pig and pork?
  • What kind of glass should I use in my greenhouse in Cuba?
  • Can mice throw up?
  • Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?
  • Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?



And the list goes on. Still, the dedicated staff of Ask NYPL always provide answers, even if it’s after having a goof laugh. “You know, I’m glad that I’m able to do this job,” Bernard van Maarseveen, an Ask NYPL researcher, recently told CBS News. “Don’t tell the management, but it’s kind of like I’m always amazed that I get paid to do this work!”

Asked what she loves most about being a ‘human Google’, manager Rosa Li said “Gratitutde, also, that moment — that ‘A-ha!,’ that ‘A-ha!’ moment is great to listen to. Hearing that joy in their voice. It’s almost like a little checkmark goes off and it’s like, OK, I’ve managed to accomplish that!”
So if you’re ever dissatisfied with Google, or just need someone to talk to, know that you can always call 917-ASK-NYPL . They’ll take care of you.

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