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20 years before Google existed, N.Y. Public Library offered a human Google


New York Public Library
The New York Public Library, established in 1895, has been answering random questions from the public way longer than Google has. (Photo: OptimumPx/Wikimedia Commons)

Google has fundamentally changed how we access information and who we get it from. It used to be that when we had questions or wanted to find facts, we’d turn to specialists in a certain subject, either through a book or in person. Of course, those experts could still be wrong, but the process provided a final arbiter on a piece of information, and that arbiter was a human being.

Now, it’s Google. It’s fast, it’s easy and (a lot of the time) it’s great. But there are so many questions you can’t look up online. Some are too complex because they have two or more parts, and others are impossible to search because you can’t remember a name or an exact year, so you get too many results to make it useful. Or maybe you just aren’t near a computer or WiFi.

That’s when talking to a human — especially a human at the New York Public Library — can make a difference, as this excellent video from Great Big Story explains:

For over 40 years, AskNYPL has been answering people’s questions by looking things up in a variety of texts, recordings and other resources.

And these people are expert researchers, so they know where to look for information, which is key in providing a really good, quality answer. Sometimes accuracy is more important than getting millions of results in a fraction of a second.

Have a query that requires a complex machine like the human brain to unravel? You can call (917) 275-6975 between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST Monday through Saturday, and one of 10 information specialists will answer your question — even if the question has multiple parts, and even if you’re missing some key information. That’s the benefit of a human over a computer algorithm. Plus, you might learn something unexpected from talking with a researcher — and if you need some recommended reading, they’ve got that covered too.

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