The New York Public Library recently shoved aside its copy of the Gutenberg Bible and illuminated Renaissance manuscripts and unearthed an even greater treasure and testament to humanity’s ingenuity and questing spirit: a cache of questions asked of librarians by a curious – in all senses of the word – public from an age before the internet made interaction with informed human beings obsolete.
The library has been publishing some of its favourites online (hashtagged, pleasingly, #letmelibrarianthatforyou). They range from the practical (“A Swiss manufacturer of baby carriages wanted to know whether the NYPL didn’t have a list of expectant mothers” – 1 January 1949), to the charmingly evocative (“When does the bluebird sing?” – 26 May 1944), to the disturbing (“What is the nutritional value of human flesh?” – 6 June 1958).
But how would the questioners have fared today, using Google to answer their myriad inquiries?
Question: Why did 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them and how did they train them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter?
Google says: In the 18th century, according to the site 18C American Women, it was the fashion to keep squirrels as pets – hence their proliferation in paintings, especially in portraits of women. The squirrels are probably not real, but copied from emblem books to symbolise different things over the years – from greed and covetousness (because of their habit of hoarding nuts for the winter) to self-discipline and patience (because of … well, their habit of hoarding food for the winter).
Question: What kind of apple did Eve eat?
Google says: According to answersingenesis.org, it is unlikely that Eve ate an apple at all. The Bible simply says she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The association with apples may have arisen because the Latin for evil is malum and so was the Romans’ word for “apple” until – says language blog altalang.com – some time after the fourth century, when pomum became the apple of their collective eye.
Question: Is there a full moon every night in Acapulco?
Google (and Galileo) says: No. According to almanac.com, the next one is on 3 February, at 6.20pm local time. A quick squizz at earthsky.com will reveal more.
Google also says that Swiss pram manufacturers combed through the nyc.gov archive for 1949 birth records, that bluebirds sing different songs when they are trying to attract a mate or deter predators (allaboutbirds.org), and that the nutritional value of human flesh is roughly the same as that of pork, depending on the cut.