You can ask Google, Alexa, Cortana, Watson, or Siri—but will you be able to ask your local library? A century or so ago, electricity was a new, quasi-magical thing—a novelty with few applications. Back then, nobody could have predicted that it would give rise to telephones, production lines, and microchips. And yet, electricity transformed every industry, including agriculture, healthcare, transportation, and manufacturing. As a foundational springboard for so many new innovations, that novelty was the most important engineering achievement of the 20th century.
Today, our interactions with AI are mostly novel (“Siri, why did the chicken cross the road?”)—and the results crude—but so were the first lightbulbs and photographs.
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.
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.
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?