“We can find the information in a lot less time because we know how to drill down in a database,” Disch said. “We know good sources to go to where you can quickly find information, so we can cut a lot of time for [reporters] and leave them to do what they do best, which is interviewing and writing. I have my specialty, and they have theirs.”

Members of Disch’s four-person team are embedded within the newsroom. They sit with reporters and editors and take part in meetings and discussions. If someone needs to find a particular kind of information, they can do it right away. They also fill another increasingly important role: training.

“The paper holds a yearly editorial clinic, and this year our department is getting a featured spot,” she said. “We decided to call our presentation ‘Keeping Current and Paying it Forward’.”

The session will focus on “using RSS feeds and Web monitoring tools, and sharing content via Facebook and Twitter.” The librarians have also given seminars about using Excel, Facebook, and Twitter, and on how to create alerts in Nexis.

That’s not what they were trained to do—and all four Dispatch librarians have masters degrees in library sciences—but Disch said it’s essential they evolve their skills and knowledge to meet the needs of a modern newsroom. That’s true for every position in journalism: evolve or prepare to move on.

Disch makes an effort to keep her team front and center within the organization, rather than hiding away in a musty library. Recently, for the first time, librarian Julie Albert received a full byline in a major front page story about domestic violence. (Albert performed data analysis of court cases.)

The most famous story about a news librarian didn’t involve a full byline. Liz Donovan was working as a librarian at The Washington Post when two young reporters were hunting down a story about a burglary. Yes, I’m talking about that burglary.

At one point, later dramatized in All The President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein were trying to track down information about a specific person. Off they went to the paper’s library to ask for the clipping file on one Kenneth Dahlberg. Here’s how the scene unfolded, according to a post on NPR’s As A Matter of Fact blog:

The long-haired librarian tells him they don’t have a clip file for Dahlberg. OK. But I checked the photo file, she said, and we do have a picture of him. The photo identified Dahlberg as a Republican fundraiser, and was an important early clue in the unraveling of the Watergate plot. Woodward didn’t ask her to check the photo file; but librarians don’t wait to be asked!

Donovan died in December, at the end of one of the worst years ever for news librarians. The tributes to her, relatively few though they were, reminded me of the obituaries for one of the last great newspaper proofreaders, Audrey Stubbart of the Examiner in Missouri. (Unlike today’s copy editors who often have to perform with pagination and other tasks, her role was to check grammar, spelling, and facts in every part of the paper.) She retired in 2000, and died not long after at the age of 105. Here’s an anecdote from a story about her retirement:

“When we first got computers in the newsroom, it was suggested that we wouldn’t need a copy editor,” said [former sports editor Tom] Dickson, now a professor of journalism at Southwest Missouri State University.

“Well, the first issue came out after that and we found out we needed one. It was a mess,” Dickson said with a chuckle. “Audrey was again asked to read stories.”

Desktop publishing and computers vanquished the newspaper proofreader. Let’s hope news librarians can evolve so they aren’t felled by the Internet and digital archives.

Correction of the Week

“Howie Morenz: At the bottom of the second column on page 14 of the Hockey Day in Stratford supplement there’s an allusion to Dean Robinson doing an interview with hockey great Howie Morenz. Morenz, however, died in 1937, nine years before Mr. Robinson was born. We regret the error. Mr. Robinson did a 32-minute video documentary in the late 1970s on the life and death of Howie Morenz that includes interviews with those who knew him and saw him play. It also includes film footage of Morenz in action and an interview with Howie Morenz Jr.” –The Beacon Herald

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.