Photos from the Vault

Meet Google’s grandma: Search engines were human powered in 1970s

Here’s a fun fact: Albert Einstein’s brain weighed 1,230 grams.

That’s less than the average 1,400 grams, but the density of neurons was greater.

People are interested in factoids and enjoy hearing stories.

Media organizations like The Tribune and search engines such as Google have succeeded because of this.

Libraries were the original Google, with the added benefit of forcing the questioner to get out into the world either in person or by phone. But shelf space is finite.

Now people stew alone in their homes in front of keyboards, searching out the latest conspiracy theories.

Nearly 50 years ago, San Luis Obispo County and the city of San Luis Obispo had not yet combined library systems.

The slide into chaos began Jan. 20, 1970, as documented in the Telegram-Tribune by Bill Bryan:

Library has all the answers

What was the weight of Einstein’s brain?

If you are confronted with such a seemingly unanswerable question, the city or county library in San Luis Obispo can help you out.

Both are part of an inter-library organization initiated solely for the purpose of finding answers to questions about anything, asked by anyone.

To date, the Southern California Answering Network (SCAN), of which the two libraries here are members, has responded successfully to questions ranging from a Ventura radio announcer who wanted the wording of the oath of allegiance required for membership in the U.S. Communist party to a San Fernando Valley play producer who wanted to know about contemporary military uniforms and insignia used in Cuba.

The Santa Barbara City Library, also a member of SCAN, asked for and received the names of all U.S. firms operating in Vietnam.

SCAN is made up of hundreds of libraries throughout Southern California, from Palos Verdes to San Luis Obispo. Member libraries are connected by various communications media, including a teletype system.

The Los Angeles Central Library is at the top of the organization. A question which has not been answered by any of the smaller libraries is sent by teletype to the Los Angeles library which, if necessary, will telephone anywhere in the world to secure the information.

(If you are interested in how much Einstein’s brain weighed, call the library and see if the new information system really works.)

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”