The New York Public Library recently started an Instagram series featuring questions that people posed to librarians in the days before Google. Apparently, librarians stored the more interesting queries for decades. So far, the series has featured etiquette questions (“When one has guests, who kisses whom first?” someone asked in 1946) and a health and science inquiry from 1962 (“What is the gestation period of human beings in days?”). As antiquated as this analog method seems, millions of people in jails and prisons with no Internet access still rely on librarians for answers that could be found in seconds online.
In an office building near the NYPL’s central library, with big windows looking out on the famous marble lions, a team of four people answers questions from inmates through the library’s Correctional Services Program. The program started decades ago and now runs lending libraries in prisons and publishes a guidebook to help people upon release. Responding to as many as 60 weekly letters isn’t an official service, but it seems to be growing in popularity. “By word of mouth we get more and more every year,” says librarian Sarah Ball, who supervises the program.
Most questions — 84 percent, responders say — come from facilities in New York state; the rest arrive from all over the country. Many have to do with life after incarceration, but others speak to the interests and curiosities of the more than 2.2 million people behind bars in the U.S. One, for example, wanted to know how to grow potatoes and start a farm. Another wanted to eventually start a diaper business and sought consumer data. There have been questions about the power of healing crystals, trumpet playing and Wiccan priesthood certification. There have also been many, many requests for baseball statistics, and one frequent writer always asks for rap song lyrics. (more…)