Jaime Fuller, writing in the Awl:
In 1908, there was no sparsely decorated webpage with a blinking cursor silently begging to answer every stupid question that had ever decided to staycation in your brain. So when New York Times reader F.S. Shaw wanted to know the know the heights of the Eiffel Tower and the Singer Building in order to settle a bet, his best option was sending a letter to the newspaper. When fellow subscriber David Levy was curious about the population of Salt Lake City, he did the same, as did the person who just wanted to know how Benedict Arnold’s descendants were doing. Eventually, the answers appeared in a column in the fashion and society section, forbear to the Sunday Styles, next to articles about the Long Branch dog show, the fine weather at Bar Harbor, and diatribes against the dearth of small hats this season. It was called “Queries from the Curious and Answers to Them.” It was mail-order Google for the exceptionally patient.
This is such a great story. As Fuller points out, there are still queries that aren’t well-suited to algorithmically-returned results. This seems to be a small obsession in the tech industry — Biz Stone’s ill-fated Jelly app was an experiment in crowd-sourced answers to questions, like Yahoo Answers without the Yahoo-ness. Those with a large-enough Twitter audience can also use that platform to answer questions in a timely manner. But none of these options are a match for having an expert research a specific question, particularly when the asker’s memory is just fuzzy enough for their question to be just too unsearchable.
Anyway, fantastic article. You should read it.