By Joanne Meil

One lasting memory of my college years concerns a remark by a professor in an introductory journalism course. Eyes scanning the impressionable faces in the classroom, he announced that at least one of us was a "closet novelist."

He seemed to be saying that although we were being trained as journalists, our careers might take us in different directions.

Since that time, I have met one former journalism student who did become a novelist, two who became lawyers, a few who are now political types, and one who is a budding playwright. I became a news librarian, and I strongly suspect that there are other closet news librarians sitting in journalism classes today.

In fact, the same people who enjoy the pace of the news environment, who embrace the challenge of hunting for the facts that enhance a story, and who harbor a curiosity about history and current events, may be well-suited to careers as news librarians.

As print and broadcast news organizations reinvent themselves to meet the demands of the information age, news librarians can use their skills to help journalists through the transition and into the future.

According to Nora Paul, library director of the Poynter Institute of Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, news librarians "are the collectors, managers, and redistributors of the organization's primary product, information. This is critical in all stages of information's flow through the organization--initial information gathering for use in news reporting, in the collection of the news product into databases, in the repackaging of information created by the organization into new products."

Barbara Semonche, library director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and editor of "News Media Libraries: A Management Handbook," adds "A news research team that is incorporated with the newsroom makes for exciting, demanding, satisfying work on deadline. There is no other library work like it."

Indeed, librarians at many news organizations are now included in editorial meetings, and some are recruited for investigative projects. This trend has contributed to teamwork that results in better news coverage.

Alison Head, director of information management at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat in California, recalls several examples of this teamwork at her paper. When young Polly Klaas of Petaluma was reported missing, the library staff searched for information on potential suspects for several months. After the self-confessed killer was apprehended, they helped build a profile of him through prison and driving records, as well as superior and municipal court information, using a combination of state government sources; Infotek, an online service originally developed for public investigators; background from other newspapers; and "people locator" searches. The staff's research also helped reporters to expose the controversy surrounding an ill-fated Indian gambling casino. This led the city editor to nominate the library for SPJ's James Madison Freedom of Information Award, which it subsequently won.

Ask any news librarian to describe the personality traits of a successful colleague and curiosity will almost certainly be among them. According to Head, "Good news librarians are information seekers. They have a general interest in information sources, always going to the local bookstore, always surfing the Net."

Indeed, any librarian who works for a general interest publication will need to be open to any topic a reporter throws at him or her. Some enjoy the surprise of not knowing what kind of question they will be asked next. William P. Hines, library director at the Times-Tribune and Sunday Times in Scranton, Pennsylvania, says that a good news librarian is "a well-rounded, well-developed renaissance person. If you limit yourself, you limit the types of services you can offer to people who need you."

Most important, however, news librarians see their work as fun--a reason that many stay in a field with an image problem reflected not only in stereotypes, but also in salaries that generally have not kept pace with changes in the profession.

While there is no traditional career path to becoming a news librarian, many complete an MLS (Masters in Library Science, or similarly named) degree. Although not required by all potential employers, an MLS qualifies library job candidates for a wider range of opportunities, and provides both introductory and specialized training in information organization, storage and retrieval, as well as legal and ethical considerations.

Since many library processes are now computerized, library schools may provide technology education as well. According to Elizabeth Aversa, Dean of the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., information technology is "added to the mix of skills and abilities we want our graduates to have." For example, students at Catholic learn how to access the Internet in a core course, "Information Systems in Libraries and Information Centers."

Other Internet instruction is infused into the curriculum, and specialized courses discuss accessing sites related to subject matters.

News librarians also are increasingly becoming involved in training and consulting. At USA Today, librarians are involved in training reporters on the in-house database system and use of the library, and are even helping to set up libraries at other Gannett properties.

One successful outreach effort at USA Today involves focus groups with editorial staffs. Librarian Bruce Rosenstein conducts hour-long interviews with 10 to 15 people in order to gain insight into the ways journalists work and ways the library can provide targeted services. Suggestions generated by the groups have led to new types of resources, new methods of accessing information, and new ways for the library to further increase its visibility.

News librarians are gaining visibility in other ways as well. While much of their work is done behind the scenes, some news organizations are beginning to give credit lines to librarians from time to time.

Barbara Maxwell, USA Today library director, believes in librarian credit "as an exception, but not on a daily basis. [The research] is just part of what we do." Rosenstein concurs. "The primary concern is that individual people appreciate our work."

Santa Rosa's Head, on the other hand, says staff credit is "not a battle I've had to fight... Reporters and editors have been supportive of the library staff receiving recognition."

Surrounded by information resources, news librarians are sitting on a host of story ideas, whether or not they choose to take advantage of this situation to write articles for their paper or to do freelance work."

Scranton's Hines, who suggested that the librarian be a "renaissance person," practices this philosophy himself. In addition to his library responsibilities, he is a contributing writer to the Times-Tribune, providing articles and columns on travel, plays and community affairs. A theater agent, he has escorted several New York and London tours. He also is a part-time professor of library science at Long Island University, and encourages support for local public libraries on television and radio.

As Hines' background proves, news libraries are excellent places to apply life experience. At USA Today, for example, librarians are encouraged to make their areas of interest and knowledge known to colleagues and editorial staff so they can be approached when queries about those areas arise.

Equally valuable to news library staffs are people who can keep the profession innovative and evolving. According to Head, news libraries "continuously need new blood, people with new information sources, fresh ways of researching."

All in all, for "closet news librarians," there is no better time to emerge.

Joanne Meil is a news librarian at USA Today.

Copyright American Journalism Review. May not be reproduced in any manner without specific written permission of the publisher. All correspondence should be addressed to: 8701 Adelphi Road, Adelphi, MD 20783-1716. (301) 431-4771.

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Last Updated: 04/9/2001
Carolyn Edds