WHAT is the nutritional value of human flesh? Can you eat wallpaper paste? And what’s that fresh smell new babies have?
Before the internet, who knew the answers to our most important questions?
Librarians, of course.
These are some of the questions people have asked New York librarians over the years. Before search engines were invented, librarians would spend hours toiling away over thousands of questions every year. Most were called in by the curious and the frustrated, then typed up on index cards by receptionists, ready for answers to be found by researchers.
This week marks the 20th birthday of the Google search engine, so it seems fitting to pay tribute to this old-fashioned way of doing things.
Like many of you, I am old enough to remember what life was like before the answer to every conceivable question was available at the click of a button or a voice command. Cameras took photos, watches told the time and street directories took us places. We also had to make polite conversation with our friends’ parents until they came to the phone.
Dinner party disputes were more interesting because they couldn’t be settled in a second by a smart-arse with a smartphone. Back then, parents were our search engines, librarians were our computers, and card catalogues were our worldwide webs.
Things changed on September 4, 1998, when two Stanford University students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, launched their first internet search engine called Google. It was named after the mathematical term “googol” which is a number that starts with a one followed by 100 zeros. It’s roughly what the company is worth now.
Google wasn’t the first search engine but it was the simplest, and now accounts for 91 per cent of all internet searches.
Funnily enough, Google was originally called Backrub because of the number of back links required for searches. It was housed in a cabinet made of Lego bricks that’s now in the Stanford museum. Eight years after being built, Google officially became a verb, entering the dictionary for the first time. Lucky for us we get to “google it” rather than “backrub it”.
And while people may have been a little more circumspect about what they asked librarians, with Google it’s a free-for-all.
According to one former Google data scientist, men most often wonder how to improve the size of their penises, make an omelet, get rid of man boobs and change a tyre. Women want more sexual satisfaction, husbands that do the dishes and bigger behinds. (Thanks, Kim Kardashian.)
Parents ask Google if their toddler is gifted, worry about the weight of their daughters and look up porn when they think no one is watching.
Other common questions include: “Why do I have green poo?”, “Why does my husband wear panties?” and, my favourite, “Why is Nicolas Cage on the cover of a Serbian maths text book?”
Questions can yield a bewildering number of results. The cryptic “What did Audrey do?” elicits 5 million answers. And in case you’re wondering, human flesh is quite nutritious, you shouldn’t eat wallpaper paste and the baby smell is an evolutionary mechanism to promote a mother’s love.
Thanks Google, but another of my favourite questions comes from the NY library. “Can I get a book telling me how to be mistress of ceremonies at a musical orgy?” Google offers 485,000 answers to this question in 0.68 seconds, with references to Hitler’s fake leg and problems with writing wedding vows. Few suggest any books that fit the bill.
It just shows there’s more information around these days, but it doesn’t mean it’s worth knowing.