At the New York Public Library, you can call a librarian who will answer any researchable question you might have. The help-line has been around for over 40 years, and to this day it receives more than 30,000 calls a year. Need to know the color of an arctic fox’s eyes? Ever wonder if there are full moons every night in Acapulco? Well, if Google isn’t your thing, these librarians have got your answer.
What a great job! People call with questions, you have the means to provide the answers. Here it is again, in slightly more entrepreneurial fashion—what I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists:
My callers fall into two very different categories. Some of them cherish the opportunity to talk to a physicist because one-to-one conversation is simply more efficient than Google. They can shoot up to 20 questions a minute, everything from: ‘How do we know quarks exist?’ to ‘Can atoms contain tiny universes?’ They’re normally young or middle-aged men who want to understand all the nerdy stuff but have no time to lose. That’s the minority.
The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.
This sort of ‘ring an expert’ thing is surely on the way out as communication preferences change. Pray silence for the death of the telephone call:
The phone call died, according to Nielsen, in the autumn of 2007. During the final three months of that year the average monthly number of texts sent on mobile phones (218) exceeded, for the first time in recorded history, the average monthly number of phone calls (213). A frontier had been crossed. The primary purpose of most people’s primary telephones was no longer to engage in audible speech.
While we’re on the subject of the New York public library, watch a timelapse video of 52,000 books being reshelved in two minutes:
A hypnotic timelapse video shows staff stocking the library’s grand Rose main reading room before its reopening after restoration work. The stunning reading room – roughly the length of two city blocks on its Fifth Avenue location – has been closed for more than two years after a partial ceiling collapse.