NYPL's Information Sleuth

The NYTimes did a piece on the "New York Public Library’s virtual reference service, which has been known for decades as a call-in information line — now 917-ASK-NYPL — but which today also fields queries by chat, email and text."

The Times showcased library researcher, Matthew J. Boylan. "Mr. Boylan and the eight other full-time researchers sit in a network of cubicles in the library’s Main Branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street and field about 300 requests a day."

As Mr. Boylan put it, "[i]n a certain sense, the work I do begins where the Internet ends. Certain things you can’t find with Google." In fact, "[t]he library system’s former president, Paul LeClerc, nicknamed him 'the Magician' for his ability to take on complicated questions and stumpers, and find answers in the library’s stacks, microfilm and other resources."

Boylan knows that he is well positioned. "I sit near millions of books and I have access to 650 databases above and beyond the open Internet." Which brings up a great point. There is a lot that is not available on the open Internet, and one way to access these resources conveniently is through a call to a local library.

Boylan goes on to note the sheer variety of questions that he encounters. And he reiterated the reason that many librarians love their jobs - because no two days are exactly the same, and it keeps things interesting. Through his work, Boylan has even had a chance to do great public service:
  • There was the 2010 call from a New York City police officer trying to rescue a suicidal teenage girl on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The officer had found the girl’s library token bearing a bar code number, with which Mr. Boylan was able to identity her and provide a family contact, helping the officer to save her. Mr. Boylan wound up writing a suicide response policy for the library system’s staff, which was followed by other libraries nationwide
  • There was the elderly rent-regulated tenant on West 87th Street who needed lease information within hours to avoid eviction. Mr. Boylan found it on microfilm and delivered it to her door
And like any great researcher, Boylan says that "[w]hen people tell me they don’t think I can find it, that’s a motivator." It's always a wonderful challenge and very satisfying to leave a patron happy.


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