Do you know why ice forms on the top of a pond? Or that "red" hair isn't really red?
Kee Malesky does. The venerable NPR librarian has been dubbed "the source of all human knowledge."
She shares her fact-finding prowess with the world in a new book, All Facts Considered: The Essential Library Of Inessential Knowledge.
Malesky has spent her entire career as a librarian at NPR, where the collection of physical books is quite small. "At its largest, our book collection was maybe 3,000 volumes," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "And it's entirely a reference collection, so we don't have novels or travel books."
These days, the collection of actual books numbers in the hundreds. They're mostly reference books, such as an unabridged dictionary — and are kept on hand for backup in case NPR computers go down, or the power is out. "And then there are still a few of our users who do like to use print," Malesky says.
But many of the answers Malesky seeks can be found by directly contacting sources. For example, if she was asked to compile a list of famous individuals with only one eye, as one librarian was, she wouldn't hit the books, or even Google. She'd contact the Society for the Blind, "because probably their librarian would know that."
Malesky says it's one of the first lessons she learned from the journalists with whom she works: Always turn to an expert, she says, "because there's somebody out there whose job it is to know the thing you need. And they're just waiting for us to call."
The advent of the Internet has had a profound influence on the way Malesky does her job. "But it doesn't mean you don't still need the same skills that I learned in library school before everything was in the computer," she says.
Whether she's consulting the Internet or an actual book, Malesky insists "it's still about evaluating and looking closely at the sources, and being sure that what you're finding is still the best information."
That can mean the easiest answer to find isn't the best answer. "As anyone who uses Google knows, that's not necessarily going to be on that first page of results." She often finds herself clicking through pages and pages of results, till she lands on "the absolutely perfect appropriate primary source, with current information that seems nice and comprehensive."
And in that way, says Malesky, the research is about perseverance, just like it's always been.
Still wondering about why ice forms on the top of a pond? Or why "red" isn't really red? Here are Malesky's explanations:
On ice: "Ice is less dense than water, and that's why it forms on the top of rivers and lakes rather than on the bottom."
On red hair: "The hair color inaccurately referred to as red is the rarest human hair color; only 1 to 2 percent of the population enjoys the privilege of "red" hair, which has existed for only the last 40,000 years."