Endangered Species

News librarians are a dying breed

When it comes to the layoffs and buyouts that have hit newspapers over the last couple of years, copy editors seem to be the most at risk of losing their jobs. So it wasn’t too much of a shock when Leslie Norman’s husband was laid off from his copy editing position at The Wall Street Journal.

But then last year she was let go from her job as a news librarian at the Journal, and suddenly it seemed as though they were both working in at-risk, or perhaps even endangered, roles. (Her husband has since been brought back to work on contract for the paper.)

“We didn’t [think that way] until we were laid off,” she said. “I never saw my layoff coming—it was a total surprise.”

The loss of copy editors has been the subject of much lament and debate in this corner, as in other places. But the plight of librarians seems to attract less fanfare and hand wringing, as if we’ve all been shushed from saying something.

Norman doesn’t think things will ever be the same for news librarians.

“I see the news library as it once existed as probably dying,” she said. “But in many newspapers, it’s evolved into something else.”

According to data collected by Michelle Quigley, a researcher at the Palm Beach Post, over 250 news librarians (sometimes called news researchers) lost their jobs in the U.S. since 2007. Membership in the Special Libraries Association News Division, an organization for news librarians, has fallen to below 400 from over 1,000 in the 1990s. Entire news libraries have been shuttered and replaced by consultants or outside vendors.

Last year, the Detroit Free Press got rid of its last three librarians, eliminating the department entirely. Also in 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution let go of fifteen librarians, which also resulted in the closure of its research department.

It’s not hard to see why newsroom budgeters cast an eye towards the library when cuts have to be made. Most news librarians are never given a byline, though some receive research credit at the bottom of articles. The perception is that they mostly help archive a paper, a task that can, to a certain degree, be automated. Just as copy editors get the hook because they don’t generate content and therefore can’t fill space or generate pageviews, news librarians are shown the door because they’re seen as a holdover from a time when newspapers kept detailed clipping files on major topics and personalities, and when the “morgue” was a critical part of a paper’s operations.

Now that every reporter and editor has access to Google and a wide range of search technologies and online databases, the thinking is that they don’t need to call upon the Boolean expertise of librarians. You can see how it makes sense—except then the facts start to get in the way. In fact, the modern news librarian seems in many ways more important than ever. Even those old clipping files still come in handy.

When I spoke with Amy Disch, chair of the Special Libraries Association News Division and library director of the Columbus Dispatch, she said her team had accessed clipping files and hard copy photo archives more than ten times that day alone. But that’s the least of what they do at the paper. In addition to providing research services to support reporters, the library runs a newsroom intranet and wiki, provides data analysis for investigations, and offers a range of other useful services.

Then there’s the reality that just because reporters can access Google or search Nexis and other databases, it doesn’t mean they know how to use them properly.

“Reporters are on deadline and they want to do things as quickly as possible,” Norman said. “Over years, they’ve come to feel, ‘I can do my own research, I don’t need an intermediary anymore.’ Some of the problem with that is they don’t have time to get the best research if they do it themselves. Also, because of the amount of information out there, they may not have the understanding or wherewithal to go through and filter out what’s good and what isn’t.”

True, reporters and editors often make mistakes because they couldn’t find the best information, or because they went with whatever came back on the first page of a Google query. At a time of information abundance, it’s essential that newsrooms have information experts on staff. That’s what news librarians are.

“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

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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.