Were 20th Century Librarians Smarter Than Google? An Investigation.

A screenshot of Google.com
A screenshot of Google.com

Long ago, before Google was humanity’s all-knowing sage of indispensable wisdom, people used to go to libraries. At these libraries, there were stacks upon stacks of books that anyone with a library membership card could open up and read. One could gloss the pages of seminal works of fiction, or learn about biomechanical engineering, if they felt so inclined. But, if someone felt stumped by a passage or got tired of the alphabetized rows of thickly-bound books, they could ask a friendly librarian a question, and they did so by writing it on a paper card.

It turns out that the New York Public Library, which opened in 1895, recently unearthed a forgotten trove of these library cards with questions written throughout the 20th century. Smartly, the NYPL has been posting them to their Instagram account using the hashtag #letmelibrarianthatforyou. The questions speak volumes about the trust placed on librarians nearly a century ago, and they pretty closely reflect how much present day humans trust Google.

But does Google in 2015 know the answers to these bizarre questions? An investigation ensues!

Question 1: “What does it mean when you dream you’re being chased by an elephant?”

Photo: NYPL's Instagram
Photo: NYPL’s Instagram

Does Google know?

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 12.47.34 PMGoogle is pretty close here, but not quite as perceptive as this question from 1947 needs it to be.

Question 2: “Why do so many 18th century English paintings have so many squirrels in them?”


Does Google know?

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 12.54.46 PM

Squares? Really, Google? Sounds like you’re the only square around these parts. We can give Google the benefit of the doubt though, being that we forgot the word “English” in the search bar. Whoops!

Question 3 demands “the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs.”

nypl 3


Does Google know?

nypl 3Google you sly fox, you! You’ve done it again, and all you needed was nearly every damn word of the sentence!

Lastly, Question 4 wants to know “the significance of the poem ‘crossing the bar’ by Browning.”



Could Google possibly know?

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 1.43.22 PM

We’re getting nowhere with this.

But if you don’t have time to ask Google random questions from the 20th century about obscure literature and bedbugs, all of the New York Public Library’s long-lost cards can be found on their Instagram page.

Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster



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Sam is an assistant editor at Brooklyn Magazine. His work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, Vice and the Village Voice. He enjoys eating food and playing drums and sometimes training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He's originally from the most ironic place in the world, Los Angeles. Twitter: Blumnessmonster


  1. This headline and what is in this article are not the same. This is not seeing “how smart google is”. Its seeing if Google can predict the question! We should see what kind of results come up when we actually google the question. See if Google, ya know, gives the right answers! OR the title of your article should be “can google predict the questions people asked in the 20th century”? Which would be a terrible article. Like this one.


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