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I am wanting to build a world with a strong retail presence, and became interested in the Information Desk at Selfridge's.

This was not the simple standard store information desk, where you ask directions or make enquiries regarding the store itself. Nope, apparently, this information desk, was an information desk for all information, like the old-timey equivalent of Google, but not where you'd expect it.

Selfridge's is a famous department store in London. Anyway, on the TV show Mr. Selfridge, set in the 1910s, based on the founder of the store, the store's Information Bureau allowed one to "discreetly enquire" regarding a person's debt, where they'd been across Europe, as well as more mundane requests such as a translation for French phrase. (The desk ran much longer than the 1910s, at least through the 1930s).

According this article, their "information bureau" answered questions on everything "from the age of the King to tricky Times crossword puzzle clues." If they didn't have the answer, they could tell you where to get it. And in this one: "For years the store ran its own private Information Bureau, equipped with more books than the average local library and a trained staff dedicated to finding answers to literally any question a customer might put to them." The idea was, no matter what the question, this desk would find you an answer.

I am totally fascinated by this, and want to build something similar in my world (it seems akin to low-level detective work, in some cases), but I need to know more about how out-of-place "information desks" may have worked this way in our world in order to sync it with reality. I am looking for ANY "all information" research desk (not just the one at Selfridge's) that was in an unexpected place. Selfridge's was the one that came to mind, but I am sure that there are others out there. I was hoping that there might be other examples of "out-of-place" or unexpected research desks. Although, will say, want to make it in a retail setting. Does anyone know how they might have worked and could point me in the right direction?

Just for reference, I am building this in a time period not unlike the Renaissance, but with better access to books and printing (more akin to WWI era in that respect) but without radio. So I want to build an "all information" desk, using real-life analogues to start with.

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  • $\begingroup$ To be clear, you're asking about the services offered by a real-world store, and how those services in real life? If so then this question is off-topic. $\endgroup$ – ApproachingDarknessFish Feb 21 '17 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ which time period they should work in and technology level which should be available to them? $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Feb 21 '17 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know how they worked, and my feeble search skills weren't even able to prove that they existed, but since the company is still in business, why not pick up a phone and call them? They may have an official historian on staff, who could give you the details that the internet lacks. Also, I did find reference to Selfridge's adding a huge book department which made it the world's biggest book store, sometime around 1914. As your edited question now touches on books, they definitely had plenty of books. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Feb 21 '17 at 5:34
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor I am looking for ANY all information research desk (not just the one at Selfridge's) that was in an unexpected place. Selfridge's was the one that came to mind, but I am sure that there are others out there. I was hoping that there might be other examples of "out-of-place" or unexpected research desks. Although, will say, want to make it in a retail setting. I could call them, or do some analogue research at a library. Just don't want to put 'em through the trouble for a fictional notion. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Feb 21 '17 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ I will give the broader question some thought. I got hung up on the "how they may have worked" aspect. Especially on the lifetime-travel questions which would seem to require access to port authority or immigration files. As for "troubling" a historian with questions, most people who hold that office are very proud of the organization they represent and are happy to share their beloved history with any who ask. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Feb 21 '17 at 5:46
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Before Google there was AltaVista. Before AltaVista there were Archie and Veronica and WAIS. And before the Internet there were reference and research services staffed by humans.

  • Large public libraries offered public reference and research services ("before the internet the librarian would answer anything"), and many of them still do. For example, the New York Public Library Research Services (40 to 200 USD per hour, depending on how quickly you want your answer).

  • Other organization offered and continue to offer specialized research services -- genealogical, scientific, business-oriented, and so on. For example, the General Information Service provides a variety of background checking services for businesses. For an introduction see the Wikipedia article on reference desk.

  • Many organizations maintain their own research bureaus; for example, one of the best known is the Congressional Research Service which serves the United States Congress. Newspapers used to have specialized fact checking departments which could and did answer factual questions from journalists (and in olden days made sure that information printed was verifiable).

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  • $\begingroup$ A certain level of basic personal skills will allow you to experience such service at any public library. Books + (person with (time + kindness + curiosity) ) = research service. $\endgroup$ – Neal Feb 21 '17 at 14:00
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Several questions here.

Was it true?

I won't go into that, I'm just going into the worldbuilding question.

Could they have the data?

Not as well as a computerized database, of course. It would rely on the fact that there are fewer relevant people. One would not inquire in the creditworthiness of a small grocer in Nottingham. One would ask if a gentleman of means has possibly over-extended his investment.

How many of these people? Thousands? Tens of thousands? And how many would be heavily in debt at any one time? It would be conceivable that one well connected business would be aware of that.

And French was the world language at the time. Would they be able to find a Czech speaker?

Could they release the data?

Now it gets really interesting. Casting doubt on the credit of a gentleman could be a grave offense, especially if those doubts are unfounded. There are jurisdictions where substantial damages would be due.

My guess it that it would depend on who is asking. If a very good customer inquires about a bad customer, and if the data is rock solid, they might answer.

Summary: Consider how far the services of a concierge may go. Find a good restaurant, avoid a bad businessman ...

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    $\begingroup$ Good point on the concierge. They were actually like a local Yelp of entertainment and eateries, among many other services back in the day. +1 $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Feb 21 '17 at 7:53
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Well, the debt part is easy: credit ratings started in the US, so that small local banks could share information about loan applicants, especially people who had just arrived. At that size, they couldn't afford to turn away applicants on suspicion, nor could they afford to have delinquent debtors. Organizations like the Western Union and major banks traded information as well as cash.

Having worked in the US retail industry, Selfridge would have been familiar with the system, and would not have found it to hard to implement on the other side of the pond. And as o.m. said in his answer, there were few people whose debt situation might be of interest.

Where they've been is part of the credit information. X owes n amount to Y, but Y is located at Z, so X has presumably been to Z. That and shipping records and society pages would give a pretty clear picture of people's movements.

Last, as regards French, it was the lingua franca of the time ;-)

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Check the available options to store data, then think about how and where these data stores might be accessed.

A few decades ago, books were the obvious data stores. These could be found in department store, book stores and private or public libraries. Yes, could walk into a larger book store and be lucky to find an enthusiastic sales person who would investigate facts for/with you inside the "data warehouse" (no purchase necessary).

Libraries were also sort of networked in days before the internet, exchanging books (or photocopies or perhaps even manual transcripts) via mail (later on, telefax was an option as well).

The other, perhaps not as obvious data source are periodicals (newspaper, magazines). These are an even more important source than books (most scientific discoveries just appear in periodicals, not in books). Periodicals are archived by their publishers and also by libraries. Thanks to the above mentioned networking, it was possible to get about every published paper from anywhere in the world withing a few weeks, max).

That's all boring. A place with lots of books and periodicals is a data warehouse, and therefore not an unexpected information desk.

Possibly somehow related and a bit unknown to most people are "Orderstationen" (that's the german word, plural) - these were privately operated locations along larger waterways (like the river Rhine) which dealt with information. Communication with passing ships was performed via radio or loudspeaker arrays (which could be rotated to stay trained on the ship with whom the person in the Orderstation was communicating). The main source of revenue for the Orderstationen were ship owner which used them to receive updates about their ships' position or to give new orders to the captains (like a new route or port of destination).

The Orderstaionen would also provide other information of interest to the ship crew. They were even equipped with a stock of records to play music for passing ships, if this was desired. So it wasn't just business-related communication, but also general inquiries, casual talk and entertainment. Obviously, the duration of a communication session was limited by the time the (moving) vessel was close enough to the Orderstation.

Orderstationen existed into the 1970s - more modern communication methods made them obsolete.

Note that locks (the "gates" in a river which separate different water levels and allow ships to pass) also typically served as Orderstationen. There were also Orderboote (boats). These allowed also to exchange written matter, but were less suited to allow for "on-line real-time inquiries", which a person working at an Orderstation could perform via telephone or telex.

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