The Future of News Libraries

Jun 19 2008

At the recently-completed SLA conference in Seattle, Nora Paul led a session on the “future of news libraries” that asked the attendees to imagine 2012, when librarians (or news researchers, or whatever you want to call them) are recognized as leaders of innovation in newsrooms, and then to explain how that came to pass. It was an ambitious and worthy session, and I’d like to see more of them among the News Division crowd. But to be honest, some of the answers worried me. I didn’t see the future unfolding the way we’d all like when I heard some of the responses to Nora’s questions.

The problem isn’t the people. I go to the SLA conference even though it has a tangential relationship (at best) to my current job because that’s where I find a group of really smart people that span nearly every field: news, law, government, engineering, technology, health, you name it. The session topics are eclectic, interesting and well-attended. People don’t wander off much.

But the problem isn’t the business climate for news, either. At least not totally. It’s a complex situation, in which a combination of factors keep a lot of news librarians anxious about their jobs and their futures. There’s a whole new set of content to archive, dwindling staff resources to deal with and a main set of consumers - reporters and editors - who remain by and large too ill-informed about the best way to find and manage needed information.

So there’s a tendency to think that if news libraries continue to provide what newsrooms want, and do it well, that things will be ok. Yes, duties will change, and people will adapt, but fundamentally it’s pretty much the same goal: finding information and turning it into knowledge.

Except that now we as news organizations are competing with, well, pretty much anybody who wants to be a guide to information, and on multiple fronts. And while most of these new competitors should also be our consumers, they are not bound by some of the ideas that have shaped how libraries have worked.

The first, and most important in my mind, is freeing ourselves from near-total dependence on vendors. Vendors will always have a role, as there are some non-core tasks that we should rightly hand to them, and some core resources that only they can provide. But I cannot imagine how news libraries will becoming engines of innovation if they do not control, or seek to control, the tools of their trade. They can no more outsource the future than the rest of the paper can, and it’s time to consider how news libraries can produce both better tools that can lead to better products.

During a session that Jessica Baumgart and I had the privilege of speaking at on Monday, I got a question from a woman in the audience who wanted to know how it was a good thing for the industry if news librarians picked up programming skills and then got better, higher-paying jobs in IT. I answered that such an occurrence was the industry’s problem, but this is what I should have said: I encourage librarians to develop these skills precisely so that they will be better librarians, better researchers. So that they can better and more efficiently manage the ever-increasing flow of information. So that they can take control of their own futures in a way that they will not be able to do without those changes. Some will leave the news library; I did. But if we stay in the news business, we’ll still be interested in solving the problems of the newsroom. And we’ll be able to contribute in even more meaningful ways (and fail sometimes along the way).

I wrote in November 2005 about ways that news libraries could actually become innovation centers, but I didn’t go far enough. Newsrooms desperately need people who can generate and then execute new ideas - for improvements in the news process and for products, to name two areas. I heard at SLA about papers forming employee committees to discuss and propose new ideas, which is great, but what if the library was the place where you could prototype and even build out some of those ideas that involve the existing content of the paper? Those committees aren’t going to be permanent, and most news organizations can’t afford to hire an R&D department.

News librarians regularly solve problems that vex 30-year veterans of the newsroom, and they often are the source of last resort for the people who need good, accurate information. But until they can be less reactive and until they start developing their own tools, getting to Nora’s 2012 scenario will be tough.

So let’s get started. SLA has created an innovation section on its site, and it’s worth taking the time to explore. Or try this effort by a fellow librarian and developer, Daniel Chudnov of the Library of Congress. Try Python, or Ruby or another programming language. Think of a concrete task - maybe some repetitive work you have to do that you’d like to automate - and see if you can’t solve it. Maybe not the first time out, or the second, but failure is a part of innovation. Not trying is the only real failure.