As many information professionals know, the position of news librarian (as well as news researcher) was once quite common inside media organizations. Journalists relied on news librarians as critical partners for carrying out the higher mission of their jobs—that is, to expose sources of unaccountable power, provide the public with information it needs to know, and further citizens’ ability to participate in a democracy. Thus, news researchers played a particularly important role in society. So important—and sometimes so exciting—that news librarians have been portrayed in Hollywood movies, including in the role of hero.
Some of these films, such as the 1957 Desk Set, were fictional. In this film, Katherine Hepburn stars as head librarian Bunny Watson at the New York City-based Federal Broadcasting Network. At her job, Bunny heroically takes on efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) whom, it is feared, plans to replace the librarians with EMERAC, a massive computer, or “electronic brain,” that could quickly spit out answers to whatever question it was asked. In one scene, Bunny assures the research librarians: “They can’t build a machine to do our job— there are too many cross-references!” (script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/d/desk-set-script-transcript-hepburn.html).
Fictional news librarians weren’t the only ones hailed as movie heroes. The Oscar-winning 2015 film Spotlight examines how real-life Boston Globe news librarian Lisa Tuite (Michele Proude) performed a vital role as part of the team working with investigative reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). The reporters relied on Tuite to help them track down the names of area priests reassigned from one parish to another after being accused of sexual abuse. Spotlight shows how Tuite first had to find an actual source that included names of local priests (a print directory!); identify the key terms used in the directory to designate when a priest was sent from one parish to another; and then, along with the reporters, figure out which terms offered clues that a priest was sent away because of suspected abuse. She cross-referenced(!) those names with a second directory to find priests who were potential abusers and passed those names to the reporters. Tuite’s research was critical to the actual reporters’ investigation, which resulted in the Globe’s famous 2002 exposé series.
More recently, a news librarian’s critical work was again highlighted—not in a movie but in a book— Perversion of Justice: The Jeffrey Epstein Story, by Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown. In it, she praises Monika Leal, information services director at the Herald, and tells how they worked together identifying Epstein’s victims and other details in the investigation.
Sadly, though, during the last 20 years, the real-life stories for the vast majority of news librarians have been anything but glamorous. Beginning in the early 2000s, a growing number of media companies began laying off their library and research staff; many even shuttered their libraries completely. By 2015, the number of practicing news librarians had shrunk so low that SLA dissolved its news librarian division. The position of news librarian was becoming nearly extinct.
Is there now an increased demand for news librarians? If so, why? Who is hiring? What might a news librarian’s roles and responsibilities be in 2022 and moving forward?
Back in the Day …
It’s worth stepping back a bit and providing some history and background: What did news librarians actually do “back in the day,” and why did they disappear so rapidly?
To find out, I reached out to several librarian discussion lists, asking for news librarians willing to share what their job was like. Several responded, and I had extensive email input from two longtime news librarians: Michelle Quigley, who worked as a news librarian at the Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) from 1992–2015, and Margot Williams, who worked at that “other” post, The Washington Post, from 1990–2004.
BRANCHING OUT AT THE PALM BEACH POST
Quigley said that her work at the Palm Beach Post consisted primarily of research for reporters and editors—quick reference questions on breaking news stories as well as more comprehensive research for investigative-type projects. Her research included finding people and data and providing background information about everything from private prison operators to reptile possession permits. Later, her group compiled and organized data for computer-assisted reporting (CAR).
Even as more information became available on the internet for free and reporters and editors were able to do more research on their own, library staff remained the experts on finding information. Their roles expanded to training reporters and editors to search more effectively. Eventually, news research work became integrated into her paper’s news-gathering process. Rather than waiting passively for questions, the news librarians started attending daily news and project planning meetings to offer perspectives and resources that the editors and reporters in the room were unaware of.
Quigley said she loved being part of the news-gathering process, especially when she was able to come up with something that was key to the story. One of her favorite examples was from a front-page story during the height of the 2011 British tabloid phone-hacking scandal ( michquig.com/wp-content/uploads/ The_Palm_Beach_Post_Wed__Jul_20__2011_.pdf). A Post reporter received a tip that former News of the World editor Greg Miskiw was living in Palm Beach County. Quigley and her colleagues didn’t find him listed in any of the usual people-finding resources, but she found a mention in a British publication that Greg wasn’t his legal name. So she searched for any Miskiws (fortunately not a common surname) and found a record in state corporations department data listing an Ihor Miskiw at a local address, where a reporter found his name on the mailbox outside his rented apartment. (Another news librarian to the rescue!)
Quigley’s time at the Post ended in 2014, when the newspaper decided to move what was left of the library (down to two people from 11 in the late ’90s) out of the newsroom and into the “digital” department, where they reported to the user experience manager. To the paper’s credit, Quigley says, it moved the remaining news researcher back to the newsroom, but when that person left the Post, the position was not filled.
Today, Quigley serves as the electronic resources training coordinator at the Palm Beach County Library and still does occasional freelance research for The Coastal Star, a monthly newspaper that covers the coastal communities of southern Palm Beach County.
TIME TO INTERCEPT
Margot Williams began her news researcher career as part of what she called “the huge research library at Time Inc.” in the 1980s. From there, she went on to work as the solo librarian at the Poughkeepsie Journal, which was “on loan” to Gannett headquarters. She then moved to The Washington Post, where she worked from 1990–2004, holding the position of research editor for most of the latter years. The full team included 10–15 full- and part-time researchers, as well as indexers, photo library staff, and catalogers.
Initially, Williams said that she and her staff were the gatekeepers, holding the keys to the online world with institutional subscriptions to the costly pay-as-you-go news archive databases. She also did internet research training, and for several years; she even wrote a column for the business section of the Post called Networkings. Williams and investigative desk researcher Alice Crites were part of the team that produced the 1998-1999 series “Deadly Force” about shootings by District of Columbia police, which won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Journalism. (Yes, another news librarian hero!)
When reporters began doing their own research, Williams says that she and the other research leaders tried to innovate and expand their roles. An early solution was to have researchers move out of the library to become embedded on the various research desks and specialize in the beat of each desk. “We lobbied for credit lines. We were trainers, and we were trained in ‘computer-assisted reporting,’ now called ‘data journalism.’” She recounted, however, that “not all the staff were happy with this arrangement.”
After leaving the Post in 2004, Williams was recruited to The New York Times as the database research editor and eventually moved back to D.C., where she joined NPR’s investigative team. She was later hired by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The Intercept as research editor for investigations, working on investigative stories that included the Snowden leak documents and Guantanamo (theintercept.com/2022/01/13/guantanamo-bay-anniversary-20-years). For ICIJ, she worked on the research and data team for projects such as the FinCEN Files and the Pandora Papers. And there’s been more after that: working on podcasts, documentary films, and helping authors. So Margot Williams, for one, is still in the thick of things.
Where Have all the NewsLibs Gone …
What happened to the hundreds of other fabulous media librarian movers and shakers? The other Michelles and Margots? The vast majority are no longer employed. Why? No mystery here. We can blame the usual suspects: the internet and Google, which made basic online research no longer the sole province of trained information professionals who knew about choosing databases, search syntax, Boolean operators, fields, terms, and keeping costs down. Combine this powerful trend with a younger generation of reporters who grew up doing their own online research; add in the always present corporate imperative to find and eliminate what it perceives as cost centers; and, well, there you have it.
It should be noted that, while the ranks of news librarians have no doubt been decimated, many who had worked (or even still manage to work) in the profession figured out how to maintain a presence—online—so they can assist those still working in the media, for camaraderie, and to keep their passion-fueled flame for news research alive. This was carried out in a couple of ways: via SLA’s News Division, which was able to remain viable until 2015, and through the still active and dynamic NewsLib news librarian discussion list since 1993, when It started as a CompuServe forum. Since then, NewsLib has been a highly active community for sharing tips, strategies, and ideas at the intersection of media, journalism, libraries, and news. NewsLib was created by Barbara Semonche, who founded The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.) news library and also served as the director of the library at the UNC–Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Semonche passed away in 2015. The list is most recently being managed by a new administrator, Carolyn Edds. (For anyone interested in a detailed history of the news library, see SLA’s history: ibiblio.org/slanews.)