Media libraries and new media

NetMedia Conference seminar
July 1997
Nora Paul
Poynter Institute for Media Studies

There are three stages in the news production process where the librarian’s role is essential and is fundamentally changing. The three stages: news-gathering, news production, news packaging and delivery. The following paper looks at these three stages and discusses the librarian’s changing role and the importance of the traditional skills and knowledge of the information professional.

NEWS-GATHERING / Reporting and Researching

Now this was interesting. Responding to a question on the library’s assistance in the reporting which won a Pulitzer Prize for the New Orleans Times Picayune, news research director Nancy Burris said, "I feel so proud to be able to say that "Oceans of Trouble" is the first prize-winning package of stories developed here where our involvement in hands-on research was limited." Proud? To not be involved in the hands-on research? Now this was very interesting. In many news libraries this would be cause for panic, not cause for pride.

Why is this interesting? Because it is among the first signs of a major evolutionary change in the relationship between the news library and the newsrooms they work with.

Burris went on to explain, "This was a project in which librarians played a different role. For "Oceans of Trouble" we acted as consultants, advisors, trainers, coaches, technical experts, database developers and troubleshooters. Our research skills were sometimes needed, but the reporters, editors, and graphic artists had computer-assisted reporting skills and the tools to collect and process most of the information themselves." The fundamental role of the news librarian had radically changed at the Times-Picayune. It is a change that must and will be hitting all media libraries as we, as a society and as organizations, move from an industrial age model into the information age.

What does this mean for the work of the news library and the role they play in their news organizations? Looking back at the history of information access in newsrooms and the roles the news library played can help us understand the profound changes that we will need to make in our roles and relationships. It can be quickly seen that the type of information available and the form in which it was available has been a powerful determinant of the role that the news library played.


Information Gatekeepers: In the pre-digital days, when the library primarily contained single copies of paper-based information resources, the role of the librarian was cataloger, circulation agent and custodian. The location of the copies had to be determined and accounted for, requests for their use had to be controlled, the copies had to be carefully returned to their location after use. For the most part, librarians were information gatekeepers, controlling the flow in and out and back again of the information resources in the library.

This set up a view of the librarian as a clerical assistant, concerned more with putting information away carefully and controlling it’s accessibility than with truly being a partner in research and reporting.

Information Intermediary: As newspapers moved from hot type to cold type production systems and the ability to capture into databases the text of the news product was realized, news librarians became the information intermediary, the keyboard jockey who knew, because of their training and the role they had in building the databases, how best to retrieve the information from the databases. And as the database superstores like FT Profile and Nexis/Lexis became invaluable, but expensive, information resources, the librarian acted as the intermediary for economic reasons, their knowledge of the convoluted search engines made for more efficient searching. That and the fact that funding for database access was usually in the library’s budget made the librarian an economic gatekeeper through which the newsroom had to access information.

This created, in some ways, a sense of the librarian as an obstacle to access to information. Reporters had to go through the library to get to the information they needed. Economic concerns often made the librarian more stingy with information retrieval than the reporters might have liked, having to cue up to get access to the librarian who had access to the information was frustrating.

End-user coach / guide: Enter now the age of the end-user information consumer. As search software became more intuitive and newsroom computer systems hooked into the text archive, reporters have started to search the database themselves. The growth in the number of tremendous information resources on the Internet and it’s availability on reporter’s computers has created a newsroom full of information end-user searchers. Not needing an intermediary, someone who will lay hands on the keyboard for them, end-user searchers need the "consultants, advisors, trainers, coaches" that Burris of the Times-Picayune described as the library’s new role. Freed from the hands-on searching of routine information requests, done now by the end-user / reporter or editor, the library has time to be the scout locating the best information resources in the Internet wilderness, the guide laying out a path for the end-user to follow when they go exploring for information, the trainer teaching reporters information independence a la "give a man a fish and he eats once, teach a man to fish and he eats forever."

This evolutionary change in role between the library and the newsroom will result in an information partnership where the librarian’s skills as evaluator, tracker and trainer of information will work with the reporter’s role as interpreter, explainer and compelling writer. Together, the news reporting will be more accurate, contain more perspective, bring in more voices and provide different angles than possible in the past.

One hundred and sixty years before the World Wide Web made it’s way to newsroom computers Johann Wolfgang von Goether, in 1832, said, "The modern age has a false sense of security because of the great mass of data at its disposal. But the valid issue is the extent to which man knows how to form and master the material at his command." The news librarian, with their training in understanding, evaluating, cataloging and compiling information will be the key partner in helping reporters know how to form and master the material as his command.

This is not to say that the research role will be totally abdicated to the reporter. In a partnership, those with the greatest skills do the part of the job they can best get done. In a reporting crunch or for research requiring detailed and in-depth searching, the librarian / researcher’s role will be an important contribution to the newsgathering.

Reporters are wanting this sort of guidance. I asked reporters and editors on the Investigative Reporters and Editors listserv to fill in the following, "When thinking about how the news library operates and what it could do I wish…." Here are some of the responses:

And one reporter summed up the evolution, and the librarian’s critical role, this way:

"Just when the technology and information access is getting to the point where a journalist wonders how to make sense of it all and find the information he/she requires, up steps the news librarian...a job which was designed specifically for that purpose decades ago--and who is now able to step into the forefront of journalistic service."

Journalists want the assistance through the morass of information available, they need the support and training that will allow them to do some of their own searching and need to have the back-up of the researcher there for more complicated searching and for their knowledge of the range of resources available. As the news library moves from intermediary to partner, the roles will be enhanced and the journalism will be improved.

NEWS PRODUCTION / From page assembly line to pagination

As the production line of the newsroom changes from an assembly line to pagination systems, the news librarian’s role as overseer of all departments’ data processing needs is essential. The output from any new production system will have to make it’s way into the text archive. The opportunity to capture full-page representations of the news product has great potential for searching and researching. The digitization of photos and graphics as page elements will bring in other challenges for archiving. The librarian must be a key participant in the development and planning of pagination systems or for any major changes in the production process. Their overview of newsroom needs and their perspective on the various uses to be made of production output is essential.

A further role is in coordinating the aspects of research and data retrieval into a new production system design. Ensuring that the needs of researching and retrieval are recognized and incorporated in the proposal stage can help prevent costly mistakes when systems which do not provide the full range of capabilities are selected.

PACKAGING AND DELIVERY / New Media and Traditional Roles

One of the ironies of late 20th century newspapering is the development of the online news product in decidedly offline newsrooms. In too many newsrooms where a daily web news product is packaged, the majority of the employees know little or nothing about the medium to which their work is contributing. It is as if all the automotive engineers at General Motors rode bicycles to work, because they didn’t know how to drive. As more newsrooms provide the material for websites and explore more imaginatively what this medium can do for the form, function and scope of their journalistic output, the need for greater understanding of the medium itself will grow. Here’s where the coach / trainer role of the librarian will be essential. In the training on how to use the web as a research / information tool the understanding of the web as a packaging / delivery medium will grow as will the understanding of how this medium of three dimensions (length / width / depth) is fundamentally different than the two-dimensional newsprint page.

The growth of electronic newsproducts will also create a great appetite and need to "feed the beast". Here is where the librarian’s traditional role of information packager will grow. Many news librarians are contributing to the content of the newspaper’s website through the creation of special information packages, backgrounders, and chronologies. Often, these were initially created as a research aid for reporters and made available on the newsroom’s intranet (internal Internet site). Many should find a useful outlet on the newspaper’s website as a way to enhance the news site as the one spot for unique and complete local news and information. The librarian is also contributing to the website through the creation of lists of links to quality information resources that users of the site might want to be aware of. As the form and function of online news becomes defined, clearly the "give me more" aspect whereby readers are led to additional information of high quality on outside sites would need the librarian’s searching and evaluating skills involved.


It only makes sense that in an information age, the role of the information professional will expand and grow in importance. Building on the traditional skills they have always brought to the function of information managers, they will be the best suited to refine and redefine their roles in a newsroom which will increasingly rely on their professional strengths of location, evaluation and education of how to use information resources. An article in the New York Times, "Moving from the Card Catalogue to the Internet," sums up the contribution of the librarian in the age of Internet information nicely:

"What is the gross national product of Belize? Who invented polyester? How smart is the average pig? Five years ago, the best way to find answers to questions like these was to go to a library and ask the librarian for help in finding the appropriate books and periodicals. Today, the same information is available on the Internet, but finding it may still require the assistance of a librarian."

SLA News Division Home

Last Updated: 04/9/2001
Carolyn Edds