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Reference Service in the Digital Age


Isn't there somebody who can answer my questions without having to look in a book?


Can’t you just Google it?

By now you may have seen the handwritten or typed images of questions asked long ago (as far back as the 1940s) over the telephone or in person at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building making the rounds on social media (a new image will be posted every Monday on the library’s Instagram, hashtagged #letmelibrarianthatforyou.) The thinking seems to be that the library was the place you went to before you could ask a search engine: "Can a mouse throw up?"

While yes, the answer to this one can be found online pretty quickly, many of our patrons discover that not everything is available on the internet or if it is, the search for that needle in the haystack can be quite daunting.

To get a sampling of the types of reference queries staff at NYPL answer check out the Reference subject heading on our blog. We do our best to write about real questions we hear frequently or that are of special interest, and we also try to anticipate future questions!  Ask NYPL is the virtual reference service of The New York Public Library but our origins are from 1968, when the Telephone Reference department was formed. Now we answer questions online as well as over the phone and via old-fashioned mail.

In the 1990s we started taking queries via email, chat and later on, text message. There was even a book published in 1992 Book of Answers: The New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service’s Most Unusual and Entertaining Questions. Today our services have expanded to include assistance with borrowing and downloading e-books and accessing online databases

Who exactly reaches out to us? Anyone can access our services and collections to find the answers they need. Patrons who don’t have access to the internet call us for directory assistance, to find out how to get tax forms or because they simply want to know if a celebrity ever starred in a western or a comedy. We get questions from authors, students, researchers, genealogists, and reporters who sometimes are surprised when we tell them that they will need to come in to the library to further their research. After all, while there is a lot of information online (check out our Digital Collections) and more being added every day, there is also a lot that is not digitized or freely available outside of the library.

So while the cards may have elicited a chuckle or two online, to me it was a nod from the past to the work we do today and will continue to do as long as there are curious people in the world who wonder: "What size gas tank did a 1987 Buick LeSabre have?" For a reliable answer you can visit the library to access ALLDATA Online. While we don't have all the answers, we can usually point you in the right direction.


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

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