A librarian for news

I was reading this terrific post by Seth Godin a few nights ago. One particular passage stood out. He writes that:

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

It got me thinking a lot about news and the information business. Who is the librarian in a news organization? Do we even have such a role?

A news organization is not unlike a library in many ways. It is an information fun house. The sheer quantity and quality of information contained in the archives of a major news organization is staggering. What’s missing, though, is a guide who can help us navigate all of this data.

In a way, the best method a news organization has for creating a paying, business class of customers is to include librarian-like services. In this situation there is a digital equivalent of walking in and asking for help with your project.

Perhaps it resembles the concept of a newsroom as café. Regardless, this news librarian is approachable, friendly, and community-focused. The librarian gauges the needs of customers and helps them make the most of the news product to which they subscribe.

The news librarian is one who can help the motivated but intimidated customer find the information they are looking for. More than that, though, they can help train them in the skills to get the most of their news product. They can teach different information gathering techniques and sources available to their customers. This serves two purposes.

First, the librarian has to ability to clarify what a customer’s subscription is giving them access to. By understanding the value of a product the customer is then better able to gauge whether that $15 a month is worth it to them.

Second, by having an approachable librarian who educates customers in information techniques the news organization creates an inherent value within their community. The more your community members know about your product the more likely they are to communicate that value to others. A passionate and educated community can do wonders for your product purely through word of mouth.

It’s likely a lot to accomplish, but if done correctly I think a librarian-like role would have a tremendous impact on the ability of a news organization to become a sustainable business and community. It’s one small step toward a greater move to changing how we think about news.


Alex Byers says:

Intriguing thought.

I’ll dial things back slightly and suggest we focus first on organizing the news website more like a library — but without the human librarian. When I go to a library, I rarely interact with the librarian. I use the computer terminals to find my book or media, and then I go locate the item in the stacks. I can do this by myself because libraries are great at organizing their data in an easy-to-use (and standardized!) way.

News websites and organizations, of course, generally suck at this. We have few systems that help users find information on a single (sometimes highly specific) topic, and the ones we do have are insufficient.

I like your idea, but I think better ways of classifying or categorizing our data are more crucial — Stijn’s ideas are a great jumping off point, and I think adding context can be wrapped into this discussion too.

Maybe we need the librarian to show up and lead the charge in information organization. Of course, this issue isn’t anywhere near the top of the to-do list at many shops, at that doesn’t help things at all.

Great points. Organization of data must definitely come first.

My idea above likely falls into a sort of “second wave” of what could be done after some building blocks are in place. Mostly was just an idea I wanted to explore and jot down for later.

[…] Spittle jotted down this thought-provoking idea: What if news organizations had librarians? What would that look like? The news librar­ian is one who can help the moti­vated but […]

Linda Deitch says:

We are out here, and we are already contributing in many of the ways you suggested! I’ve been a news librarian for almost 20 years. I am one of four librarians at The Columbus Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. All four of us have master’s degrees in library science, and two of us have journalism degrees.

We’ve been impacting the newspaper product in many ways and helping staff navigate reams of information. We launched our newsroom intranet more than a dozen years ago, and have been building a newsroom wiki (knowledge base) for the past few years that’s highly successful. It’s like electronic clip files for the reporters.

We use the Freedom of Information Act to request public records and then put them up on the intranet in searchable ways that make sense. We also train the reporters on info tools and we do reference, deep research, data analysis, backgrounding, archiving, and photo research. We have a history blog on Dispatch.com that just won an award from the Associated Press. It’s been extremely rewarding.

Aside from the data work, we also do traditional library service that also makes a difference — for example, we make sure the reporters and photographers have current state and county maps, and we show interns what microfilm is all about and how using it can save your butt. We have a professional organization, the News Division of the Special Libraries Association. I love my job because it helps make better journalism.

It’s fascinating to know that news librarians are out there. The history blog you mention looks like a terrific resource.

I don’t suppose you’ve made any of the data public but it’d be interesting to know the traffic levels and engagement readers have with the site. In other words, I wonder who is the audience of the history blog?

Really great stuff, thanks for commenting!

Linda Deitch says:

Hi Andrew,

Thanks very much … The news librarian team launched the “Look Back” history blog on Dispatch.com two years ago to showcase the treasures within our newspaper’s photo archives. So far there are 400+ categorized posts (Animals, Downtown, Ohio State, etc). We also put up a link to each blog post on The Columbus Dispatch fan page on Facebook, where we are able to really engage with readers. (More comments are posted there on FB than are posted directly via the blog.)

We use the blog to give readers context behind the news images. Popular posts include those that show a local place “Then” and “Now,” or capturing a moment in time, like bystanders at an intersection 50 years ago, or focusing on a local character of the past.

The blog has been a wonderful way to repurpose content from our newsroom wiki knowledge base.

As far as the audience for our blog, I don’t have any hard data at this point, but we’ve heard feedback from longtime local residents who appreciate the nostalgia trip … as well as young newcomers to Ohio who have said they like learning about the history of the area and its people this way.

Linda Deitch says:

P.S. The blog is at


Very cool, thanks for sharing.

Mike Meiners says:

I second Linda – we are already here – have been for decades. But you are right, we DO “have a tremen­dous impact on the abil­ity of a news orga­ni­za­tion to become a sus­tain­able busi­ness and com­mu­nity.”

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