Vol. 25, No.1/Fall 2002
SMALL COUNTRY, BIG WORLD
The first job I took as a news librarian was in 1984 at Brabant Pers, a publishing company of four regional daily newspapers (total circulation 400,000 daily) in the southern part of the Netherlands. I was managing a library staffed with nine archivists, each doing the usual tasks most news librarians did in the 1980's: clippings, images, microfilm and reference questions in day and night shifts. Youngsters in our field might think of this time as the Fred Flintstone era, with Fred as a librarian at the Bedrock Suburban Daily Journal, armed with his state-of-the-art scissors, pile of papers, wax-coater and huge overloaded cabinets holding thousands of subject clips.
For about 80% of our time, we collected "just-in-case" information and filled cabinets - more than one million clippings collected over 12 years (the department started in 1972). This organized chaos was a daily threat to the colleagues below us on the second floor. The image archive was really overweight, weighing more than 600 kilos (1323 pounds) per square meter, when no more than 400 kilos (881 pounds) was allowed! Lucky for us, below was the computer room, so over the years our plans for changing to electronic archiving got high attention.
In 1986 we did a survey about the use of our archives. We asked editors to rate the files they used on issues such as precision, usability, completeness and so on. More than 78% of all the collected clippings came from our own papers; the other 22% came from other dailies, periodicals, irregular collected sources and grey literature, some written in foreign languages. The editors rated this 22% as their "number one source" in more than half of the survey questions. Their own articles - the 78% they wrote themselves - were rated as less important than the information we gathered from external sources.
These figures were even more explicit for our "country files." In this category we depended upon other sources more than 80% of the time. Remarkable findings, but we librarians were not surprised: it matched our vision that it was "a big world we live in and our region is just a small part of it."
Thanks to this survey we were able to get a connection to FT Profile in 1988. We grew from just one million clippings to a "virtual library" with 15 million articles - hurrah! At the time we didn't know much about using electronic databases and with FT Profile we created our own "classroom." All the new experiences were very useful in defining standards and specifications for the implementation of our own electronic archive system. We were fully trained at the moment our internal archives went into operation, August 1, 1990, the day Iraq attacked Kuwait.
In the meantime our company merged with other newspapers, making a total of nine papers with a total daily circulation of almost 900,000. Our electronic database contained more than three million articles in 1993. Our world was becoming "bigger and bigger." By the end of 1994, when we got connected to LexisNexis, we had more than one billion documents at our fingertips. A few years later the Internet came into our service package and we library front runners were pushing the buttons to millions of pages. In just 10 years our small news library was expanded into a big worldwide digital "information-haystack."
During those booming years several things became clearer. All news libraries were facing similar challenges and problems, including the need for more sophisticated research and data management skills, increasing news editorial changes, frequent redesign of papers and growing implementation of new systems. We were following new trends and setting new goals. To paraphrase a Belgian colleague, "we were all sick in the same bed."
Thanks to new technology, e-mail and mailing lists like NewsLib, the geographical distance wasn't relevant anymore; the only borders left were time zones. New tools enabled us to be part of an online community of news librarians, sharing their professional skills and know-how. And hey! While this community represents a small part of the media world, we've become akin to a village where people easily get in touch with each other.
I think this worldwide network of professionals is creating a new strength in itself. Almost every day we can see how powerful and unique this network is. Checking facts or in search for a copy of an article or just a name or phone number? Just the header "Need help on deadline" starts a machinery that's often much more effective than all those billion-document databases. On deadline, when the digital treasure troves fail to deliver the right quick-reference answer, the power of an easy 'n quick communication network is unbeaten. It's a unique tool by its intrinsic power, because it consists of news information professionals. This tool is our tool and it's hardly used by any journalist or editor.
And thus we grew from a small library in a big world into a big library in a small world.
In my opinion this world of "colleagues helping colleagues" is the biggest merit of the nine-year young NewsLib. And I hope more and more colleagues from all over the planet will be able to use it as an international forum. People sharing their knowledge are indispensable in the competitive, high-speed, worldwide reach of news research. The development of close, useful international relations among news professionals is a great way to start and sustain high-quality research and data management in our business.
Wil Roestenburg is Head of Information & Documentation at PcM Daily Newspapers in the Netherlands. He is also the International Relations Committee Chair for the News Division. You can contact him at W.Roestenburg@pcmuitgevers.nl.
Last Updated: 11/22/02