by Barbara Quint
The morning dawns. I wake and greet the day. Cup of coffee in hand, I wander into the living room, select a mystery from my unending collection (Amazon rules!), and settle down to a pleasant read. Twenty or 30 minutes go by peacefully when a sense of something wrong starts to pluck at my consciousness. I look up, and the room is filled with an odd, almost amber glow. Something is wrong. I open the door and see a giant column of smoke filling the sky. It seems to come from the west, over the ocean, but it’s hard to tell. What is it? Is there a fire nearby? Is it coming closer? I notice two neighbors a couple of apartments down standing on their roof, gazing at the horizon. What’s going on? Are we in danger? What’s happening? And where do I go to find out?
Now I live in a fairly affluent community, one that not only recently funded a major new library building but that also has staffed its library with assertive, talented, and digitally endowed librarians. (And by that I do not mean each of the staff has 11 toes.) However, that same semi-affluent community had its longstanding newspaper shut down years ago. It doesn’t even have its own news broadcaster. So if you want to find a place to call when a column of smoke in the sky appears, a place where, if they don’t know what is happening, they will find out, you’re on your own.
For any other information question, you could call the public library or go to its Web site, but news coverage of the immediate community has never been seen as falling in the purview of public libraries. Why not? The reference services at my local library support every known form of Q&A technology, from the primitive walk-in or mail-in to telephone, e-mail, chat, etc. In fact, the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library accepts digital reference questions from anyone in the country or indeed the world in this “Web-ed up” third millennium. Why should news of the immediate locality be exempt?
In the past, community newspapers or news services bore that burden, but hard times have come upon the newspaper publishing business, and small communities have taken particularly hard hits. In the past, people may not have expected to scratch every itch when it came to finding out what was going on, but the proliferation of information outlets, including linkages to online information sprouting from every orifice, has made immediate “info-gratification” the norm. In the past, librarians may have seen serving the community by handling printed material as their primary and established roles, but these days librarians are scrambling to redefine their roles and to re-establish the need for their services with their constituencies. In the past, the cost of even indexing the local newspaper may have drained too much of a library’s resources, but the Web and its search engines have provided a cheap and powerful solution for everyone with the will to publish.
Hard times make for hard choices, but, fortunately, this choice could be a lot easier than it would have been in the past. Libraries everywhere have their own Web sites, many with extra features like blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, etc. Much of the news a community needs is available from open Web sources. Set up feeds from news sources like Google News or Yahoo! News. Roll your own set of sources using services like Rollyo.com or PubSub.com. If your community has a local newspaper or news source, of course, link to that. Assign staff to do some customized introductions to the material you select — not all of it, just those that need a more visible connection to local interests. Get the community involved. Turn your patrons into news hounds. If radio stations can take their breaking news from cell phones, so can you. If community issues raise a rumpus, siphon those into discussion areas.
Afraid that building a community news source might stretch your resources too thin? Well, let me raise a provocative thought — advertising revenue. Before you rush to ALA’s arms for protection from the nasty concept, remember that advertising is good for business — yours, your patrons’, and your community’s. With newspapers on the decline and cable television advertising too dispersed, many local businesses find it hard to reach their markets. You could be doing the community a favor by providing another way to connect needy merchants with needy consumers. You could also do yourself and your institution a favor by proving to your managers that advanced services from advanced information professionals can be win-win solutions.
Will there be problems? Heaps of them! Who gets assigned the after-hours post for news that occurs when the library shuts down? How do you verify news stories? How do you prevent controversy from erupting into vilification and malicious exchanges while avoiding charges of censorship? How do you deal with competitors for your advertising dollars? What sorts of extended technological know-how and gear may news services require? And these are only a few of the problems I can envision off the top of my head, but these days information professionals are not measured by the number of problems they face, but by the quality of the problems. And these are very handsome, challenging, resume-building problems, the problems that prove that your community has certainly hired the right people to do the right job and that any community that doesn’t have smart, sharp, service-compulsive, technologically sophisticated information professionals on call must be a terrible place to raise children or risk setting up a business.
And when it comes to handling these problems and all the others such library-based news services would give rise to, you have an ace in the hole. You can cheat. You can share your problems, your need for linkable sources, your strategies, and even your advertising revenue aspirations with all the other librarians establishing news services. A listserve, a forum, a chat room, a blog and … bingo, you have an info-pro-to-info-pro safety net in place. In fact, networking might even get more formal. Google’s AdSense program, Amazon’s affiliate program, Yahoo! Shopping, and Yahoo! Local … the Web is bursting with people who are looking for new outlets and who are willing to swap goodies for them. (Hmm. That reminds me. Yahoo! just opened an office building here in Santa Monica. Let me call my librarian and whisper a suggestion for partnering into her shell-like ear. Hah! Maybe they could handle the video portion of a future news service.)
The idea for news services should not just apply to public libraries. Academic libraries serve institutions that generate and consume news about on- and off-campus activities. Corporate and institutional libraries have ongoing issues, from product development, press coverage, and regulatory developments to personal and local information, such as community events or traffic reports. Some institutional news will already be supplied by units other than the library, but libraries launching general news services could make sure that all the news from all units gets centralized delivery enhanced by the addition of news from outside the organization.
Above all, librarians need to make sure that everyone knows, wherever they live or work, that if you need to know anything, anything at all, you start with your librarian.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.