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June 28, 2006

Going where Google can't go


That's what the eight women and two men who make up the telephone reference service of the New York Public Library do every day except Sundays and holidays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.

Above, Barbara Berliner and Tony Cheung and below, Selina Raghunath,


three of the staff of ten.

Anyone can call them from anywhere in the world at 212-340-0849 and ask almost any question.

Anthony Ramirez, in an article which appeared in the June 19 New York Times, wrote about these expert researchers, who are allowed a maximum of five minutes to answer your question.

The deadline is meant in part to focus the staffer's attention.

"Otherwise," said Harriet Shalet, the chief of the service — known officially as "telref" — once we get going, we would never stop."

I know someone just like that — she lives in Mississippi.

But I digress.

The people at telref specialize in accessing the so-called "dark internet" — information that for one reason or another is transparent to Google's search engine algorithms.

Highlights of the Times piece:

• At its peak, before the rise of the internet, the telref desk received over 1,000 calls a day; now they average fewer than 150.

• A total of 41,715 calls came in last year; about 20,000 inquiries were made by computer.

Here's the article.

    Library Phone Answerers Survive the Internet

    For years, a small band of researchers at the New York Public Library has been tackling questions from young and old, the clueless and the haughty, the vexed and the unvexed, reducing life's infinite jumble to an answer, more or less.

    Today, despite the Internet, the eight women and two men of what is known as the telephone reference service are still at it. Every day, except Sundays and holidays, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., anyone, of any age, from anywhere can telephone (212) 340-0849 and ask most any question.

    What country had the first license plates? What is the life cycle of an eyebrow hair? What is arachibutyrophobia? How does a person get out of quicksand?

    The staff has less than five minutes to reply. (Answers at the end of this article.)

    Most queries are humdrum, like when is the library open. The clueless ask who the famous are, like who is the vice president. Secretaries puzzle over their own shorthand when the boss uses an unfamiliar word.

    Some queries get garbled: one librarian thought a caller from South Africa was asking how many statues of Lenin there are in the world. (He meant John Lennon, and was referred to other sources.)

    While the number of telephone calls has declined over the years to fewer than 150 a day from more than 1,000, they still made up two-thirds, or 41,715, of all inquiries to the staff last year (the rest were by computer).

    Still, the persistence of this service raises its own questions. Like why, in the age of search engines, would anyone bedevil a human being with such questions? And what human being would choose to be so bedeviled?

    Harriet Shalat, 62, of Forest Hills, Queens, for one. She is the chief of the service, known as telref. "We are detectives," she said. "We know more than people think we know. We're not little old ladies stamping books and telling you to be quiet."

    Paul Duguid, an adjunct professor at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, said there would always be a place for such human search engines.

    There are "dark areas" on the Internet, Mr. Duguid said, vast databases that are not scanned by search engines like Google. Mr. Duguid (pronounced do-good) is a co-author of "The Social Life of Information" (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), about data that computers cannot process.

    "If you have a good search question, Google is great for answering it," Mr. Duguid said. "If you don't have a good question, you will get 17 million responses and you will wish you hadn't asked."

    Some caller questions are verboten. The telref staff won't answer crossword or contest questions, do children's homework, or answer philosophical speculations or guilty-spouse questions (what is my wife's birthday?).

    "And if a question is very funny," Ms. Shalat said, "you have to put the person on hold, before you start laughing."

    An example? A schoolboy once asked if there were "cultural institutions" close to Coney Island. The researcher asked why.

    Because, said the frustrated youth, "I want to go to Coney Island today, but my father says I have to do something cultural first."

    Maura Cavanagh, 68, a writer and theatrical producer in West Cornwall, Conn., called the staff last week. She had been stuck for days on how to find the address for the Society of the Cincinnati, a group once headed by George Washington for the descendants of Revolutionary War officers.

    To Ms. Cavanagh's delight, Valerie Stegmayer, 55, a telref staffer, found the address in moments on a database.

    It is also easily Googled. "I don't enjoy using a computer," Ms. Cavanagh said, "because you're given a very poor and misleading version of what is available."

    Public libraries in other cities, like Los Angeles and Austin, Tex., have similar telephone-reference services, but few, if any, are as large or as storied as that of the New York Public Library.

    The reference service has been around, in a limited way, for as long as telephones have been available in homes. But it was only in 1968 that the service was organized as a separate library unit.

    Today, it can be found in a quiet room at the Mid-Manhattan branch at 455 Fifth Avenue, catercorner to the main branch with the two stone lions, Patience and Fortitude. Phones don't ring there; they light.

    The 10 researchers range in age from their 20's to 60's and have degrees in elementary education, chemistry, mechanical engineering and criminal justice, as well as one Ph.D. in English literature.

    One part-timer is the former head of the telref staff, Barbara Berliner. She is the author of "Book of Answers: The New York Public Library Telephone Reference Service's Most Unusual and Entertaining Questions" (Simon & Schuster, 1990).

    When a challenging question comes in, the staff quivers, like human parallel processors, checking reference books and pooling information. They can also consult with as many as 50 other researchers in the library system.

    Under library rules, each inquiry must be answered in under five minutes, meaning the caller gets an answer or somewhere to go for an answer — like a specialty library, trade group or Web site. Researchers cannot call back questioners.

    The deadline is meant, in part, to focus the staffer's attention. "Otherwise," Ms. Shalat said, "once we get going, we would never stop."

    Almost all telephone calls are in English, although researchers can get by in Chinese, Spanish, German and some Yiddish. Specialty libraries, like the Slavic and Baltic division, can lend a hand with, say, Albanian.

    While Internet inquiries make up only a third of the questions, they can take up to 35 minutes each and 85 percent of total staff time. Internet inquiries come by e-mail (13,398 last year) and a one-on-one chat that resembles instant messaging (7,220 last year).

    E-mail questions can be tough, like, "What is the average shoe size of a man in the United States?" (10½). And chats can be puzzling.

    Last week, a questioner from Germany typed, "How do you assess the present security situation in the Lower East Side, in particular 14 Street between avenues A and B?"

    The questioner was a student in Germany considering renting an apartment there. The researcher suggested several Web sites, including one listing recent crime statistics.

    The voice, however, has advantages. The researcher can guess how old the caller is. Youngsters tend to be in a hurry; oldsters want to reminisce. Voices can also hint at urgency.

    The haughty and the impatient tend to be men, Ms. Shalat said. Physicians are the worst. "It's not a man thing, it's a conceit thing," Ms. Shalat said. "This is Doctor So-and-So calling and I need blah blah blah. Run and get it, honey."



Why are we not surprised that as a group doctors are the biggest jerks?

ANSWERS: France; 150 days; fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth; don't thrash, ease to the surface, float.

June 28, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Regarding those last few sentences - Way back in my misspent youth when I worked as a directory assistance operator for Ma Bell (worked in toll too, which was more "fun"), I often got calls that went "Operator, this is Doctor John Important calling from the High and Mighty Professional building [like this information could POSSIBLY cut any ice with me] and I need [NEED, I always loved that] the number for Cafe Ostentation - [half the time it was a restaurant] I don't know the address but I need it immediately! [Like STAT, sure] Hurry! And put the call through for me."

And with undisguised glee I would tell Doctor Important that there were twelve Cafe Ostentations in Atlanta and if he didn't know where the one he "needed" the number for was, I sure as hell didn't, and us DA operators don't put calls through for anybody unless it's a police or medical emergency. Unless of course he needs an emergency medium-rare sirloin for one of his "customers." They were terrible, those doctors.

But I was too.

Posted by: Flutist | Jun 28, 2006 9:52:33 PM

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