Spotlight on The News Librarian: what did we do and what have we lost?

This year’s Best Picture Oscar went to the film Spotlight, about an investigative journalist team uncovering a scandal in the Boston Catholic church in the 1990s. Among the techniques which helped them make connections, find evidence and uncover new aspects, were searches through press cuttings archives and cross referencing library directories. Vaguely seen in the film are news librarians, retrieving microfilm and hard copy press cuttings files. Unsurprisingly, the heroes of the film were the journalists themselves, the librarians silent service personnel. Here, Katharine Schopflin shares her experience of working as a news librarian.

As a news librarian myself in the early 2000s, I can tell you that librarians did a lot more than just fetching and carrying. For a start, the press cuttings files themselves were compiled by librarians marking articles with relevant classification terms so they could be found again. To do so took expert news knowledge, the ability to analyse and disambiguate at high speed and an understanding of how future questions would be asked. Secondly, news libraries kept back copies of directories precisely so that they could be mined for information. The journalists in Spotlight descend to a basement storeroom and found them on the shelves, in order, where they expected to. Their life had they been kept in the newsroom would have been somewhat shorter.

And news librarians actually did research themselves. The late 1990s was the great era of the information professional as news researcher. Paula Hane’s Super searchers in the news (Information Today, 2000) interviewed ten librarians based in US news organisations. They discussed the questions they get asked, the stories they had researched, the skills they used and the resources they relied on. All indicated a close working relationships with journalists, investigative or otherwise, who clearly valued their skills and knowledge of resources. In some cases the librarian worked in the newsroom itself, in a role recognised as quasi-journalistic. This wasn’t a US phenomenon either. Sarah Adair’s edited collection Information sources in the press and broadcast media (Bowker Saur, 1999) demonstrated that specialist information searching skills were increasingly valued at a time when many journalists felt mistrustful or overwhelmed by the world wide web. News librarians understood where to look, how to evaluate and when to go to trusted sources such as hard copy reference or online databases which charged a hefty per-use tariff.

Image credit: 'New technology will slash cost of preserving written heritage' by University of Salford Press Office
Image credit: ‘New technology will slash cost of preserving written heritage’ by University of Salford Press Office

In the first decade of the twentieth century, a combination of panic and opportunity meant that library after library closed across the UK and US. Panic was caused by a succession of events: the dot.com crash, particularly affecting publications which had been taken over by tech companies (AOL Time Warner, which announced the closure of the Time Life editorial research library in June 2001 was a noted example), recession, the after-effects of the September 2001 World Trade Center attacks (which affected advertising revenue), and the decline in paper circulation as online news took over the eyes and interest of readers. In response, news organisations sought cuts wherever they could. As research resources became increasingly available via web interfaces directly accessed by journalists themselves, the opportunity to make savings by closing the library seemed obvious. In 2010, the professional association representing news librarians in the UK, the Association of UK Media, was wound up because so few of its members now worked in the sector.

Today, the news librarian is a rare creature indeed. There are some pockets of information professional work in news organisations in areas such as rights, licensing, media cataloguing and management and even research (see Katy Stoddard’s account of her work at the Guardian). But on the whole, the notion that an information professional has special skills essential to publication of unbiased, well-informed, original and accurate journalism has disappeared. Either organisations feel ‘it’s all on the web’ or a library was a luxury or something simply not relevant. Librarians are not the only casualty of a very real crisis in the modern media: increasingly fewer journalists work for newspapers and, as Nick Davies depicts in his excellent Flat Earth News (Chatto and Windus, 2008), much of the content produced by our news outlets rehashes the contents of press releases. Far less of the type of investigative journalism depicted in Spotlight takes place.

Nobody is arguing that librarians should be employed to classify hard-copy press cuttings when the most-heavily used content is available online, powerful and evocative as a hard copy press cuttings file is. And the day-to-day life of the news librarian was unglamorous and could be unrewarding. Yet the loss of an entire sector of a profession is no small matter. As I write, public librarians are active in protest to try and ensure that there will be professional jobs for them to take on in the future. Professions ensure standards, encourage training, provide best practice and support each other with knowledge, advice and shared resources.

newspaper clippings laid out on a table
Image credit: ‘newspaper clippings table’ by
Carmichael Library

News librarians were the people in their organisation who excelled at finding information, identifying sources and, as information increasingly became available in chaotic and unmediated formats via the web, establish the authority and reliability of a source. Many journalists cared about these things, but only the librarians took on the responsibility to be the filter which stopped short-cuts and lazy research. Perhaps this is the real tragedy of the loss of the news librarian, what it says about the journalism available to us. Nobody working in the field can afford to apply the types of professionalism a news librarian could bring to the job. This is unlikely to change as news organisations attempt to solve the conundrum of how to make their readers pay for professionally-written content.

The demise of the news librarian is not, therefore, simply a historical event, equivalent to the loss of paper-based accounts ledgers or a closed coal mine. It points to two depressing conclusions about the media we read, watch and listen to. First, the very connection of information skills with journalism has been lost. Those people who train and practice to connect people with high-quality information are no longer of interest to those who make the news. Secondly, information skills have become redundant in the media because few media outlets care about professional standards. It’s not just librarians who aren’t carrying out in-depth research, evaluating sources and finding the unfindable: nobody is.

I recently attended a Media Society event at which senior journalists discussed the future of news content. They agreed that, if journalism is to prove itself as important in society, more high-quality investigative journalism of the sort depicted in Spotlight should take place. I would like to think that, if it happens, the support and skills of information professionals would be recognised as offering value to the process. However, I fear the link between our profession and the news has probably been severed irrevocably.

First published in CILIP Update (magazine of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, www.cilip.org.uk), June 2016, pp. 28-30, and reproduced by kind permission.

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