On a recent visit to Cornell University I saw this sign in the engineering school library: "Librarians—the ultimate search engine." ... followed by the exhortation to "ask a librarian." I could only stare. It was like a scribbled note from an earlier century, from a people so distant that they must have been living in a black-and-white world and cooking extinct animals.
"Ask a librarian"—such a quaint notion.
"Ask about a new typewriter," the sign might have said. Or this: "Get space in our college of taxidermy."
I walked a step or two away and came back and stared some more. Maybe this was a history exhibit. Perhaps that sign—"Ask a librarian"—was found rolled up in a bottle, having been tossed into the sea by a race of people who once walked the earth and valued physical books, loved the feel of printed paper, were calmed by the sound of pages being turned in a hushed hall, and enjoyed the hunt through a library's "stacks" for surprising troves of knowledge.
I started off to my meeting... wondering: What would I ask a librarian anyway? Would I ask if she or he missed the sound of hoof-beats on cobbled streets? Would I ask about life before telephones?
I walked on and rounded a corner. It came to me—what I wanted to know... I would ask the librarian how—in the many centuries before search engines—one ever found any answers.