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Vol. 23, No. 2/Winter 2001

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Marcia MacVaneSmall Libraries: Adding value to research
By Marcia MacVane

I am reminded of an article I read a couple of years ago that talked about the value of news librarianship. It stated that although the main thrust of our occupation was research, our value as news librarians would increase as our ability to "present" research increased. In other words, it is not only "what" we provide but also "how" we provide it that will often determine the value of what we do.

In the world of small libraries, creating time to provide in-depth research is often a challenge. In recent years, as part of our participation in providing the "what" to the newsroom, we are also asked to take our research and present it in a readable and logical format, ready to accompany a news story. In many cases, this has been a leap that has taken place in a remarkably short time.

For instance, many small libraries were clipping news stories in the 90ís; some still are. When a reporter needed research from these clippings, often they were simply handed the correctly identified subject folder from which they located their own answers. Bureau reporters actually received better service; because they were not able to see the entire folder, librarians would pick through the clippings and fax appropriate ones to them.

Enter the world of database research (Nexis, Dow Jones, etc.). If you were still clipping, the words "search string" meant little. In time, however, librarians negotiated this maze and handed printed sheets - sometimes reams of paper! Ė to reporters. And as expertise increased, enterprising librarians would actually highlight appropriate areas within the documents to facilitate the reporterís job. And those reams of paper decreased to a trickle.

We repeated this process when researching numerous databases and the internet. Now in many cases we are providing the next logical step in the art of research - that of combining our knowledge into published content.

Many of the larger newspapers have staffs delegated to research and create documents detailing the research. For instance, Kathryn Pease, editorial research supervisor at the Sun-Sentinel, reports that her staff writes "most of the timelines and sidebars. For example, we often write timelines once a person is sentenced (if itís a major case), chronicling the date of the crime all through the arrest and trial."

Elaine Raines from the Arizona Daily Star reports that they "have been writing an increasing number of sidebars, timelines, bio boxes and even supplied text for whole page treatments of such things as our local endangered species or a new national monument area." They also have "one standing bylined piece that runs every week in the entertainment sections ... handled on a rotating basis." Elaine notes that this does take extra time but she thinks everyone enjoys both the writing and the extra recognition.

Melissa VanDiepen, chief librarian at the Modesto Bee, finds that volunteering "to write a small piece ... is met with open arms because many times reporters and editors are in a time crunch that prevents them" from doing it at all. She has found that "becoming familiar with AP style and your newsroom requirements are a BIG help."

Ric Russo supplied information from both ends of the spectrum. Having worked in the research department of the Orlando Sentinel for 14 years and the Bradenton (Florida) Herald for nine months, he went from a staff of eleven to a staff of one. In Orlando, a staff member "often wrote sidebars, parts of stories, constructed timelines or nugget boxes or even wrote stories." Additionally, they even had a "librarian who wrote a column that ran with our Sunday book pages about good reference resources." Ric reports that if he suggests "a sidebar or timeline ... most of the time they just tell me to write it." However, keeping up to date with the enhancing takes a lot of time so keeping the work balanced is important. "Time restraints play more of a role," he reports.

At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J. Stephen Bolhafner says that they "very seldom write stories or sidebars ... but do provide a "Local Fact" for our Saturday paper each week." This is a "little paragraph summing up an interesting statistical or historical fact about the area."

Leigh Montgomery at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston reports that the library does assist with "the compilation of facts for such boxes (which we call iboxes). As far as actual writing is concerned, most of that is considered practice for the junior staff/interns." However, the library there is involved in a very interesting on-going project involving large explanatory infographics and statistics about a particular issue or news event. They produced two in 2000.

Leigh says: "These pages were not only researched and the data gathered and analyzed by our library staff, but they were also our ideas. It also gave us some valuable experience in working with editors, designers, artists, and photo editors in a different capacity. We hit the ground running - our first ... page was on refugees and displaced persons. (www.csmonitor.com/durable/2000/05/11/fp12s1-csm.shtml)

Our second page we were extremely proud of - on voter turnout/participation around the world. This required much more work than the last one as not only did we have to obtain the data, it required significant analysis. (www.csmonitor.com/durable/2000/10/19/fp12s1-csm.shtml)

Julia Muller from the Savannah Morning News reports that she does "an average of two timelines a month." In an attempt to keep ahead of the game, she often works on specific topics when she has the time, knowing that the issue will come up again. Julia is one of two employees and does most of the research for the news department. She estimates that she spends about one-quarter of her day looking for information and the "rest of the time is devoted to good old archiving and quality checks ... and email requests."

The one thing almost all respondents had in common was that at least one person would attend the morning news meeting. Often ideas for related research topics or sidebars are suggested at this meeting and can be working on during the day. Elaine Raines noted that one of her frustrations was the research request that arrives at the end of the day when most of the staff is leaving.

Although this is a small sample of libraries, it is apparent that many news libraries (both large and small) are taking the initiative in providing more value to their products. It not only enhances our position within the newsroom, but it also provides us with expertise in other fields, again increasing our value.


Marcia MacVane is Library Director at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram. You can contact her at mmacvane@pressherald.com or (207) 791-6318.