Newspapers are dead, long live libraries

14 August 2011

I've been thinking recently about what libraries look like when they're about information retrieval and dissemination rather than information storage.  Public libraries already do a fair bit of this, but for some of the staff it seems to be something they think of as 'not really my job' - and some patrons seem to agree, given the apologetic way they ask for assistance.

Knowing it all with a smile

One of the advantages of being a public librarian is that I get paid to practice my natural tendency to be a know-it-all.  Often this just entails correcting the name of a book title, or explaining that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is simply the American name for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (a great example of how senior Editors in publishing houses 'add value').  Sometimes I get to help people with more interesting questions which require me to find things well outside of our own hardcopy collection or database products.  Questions like "what visa do we need to apply for to get my sick aunt to be allowed to stay in Australia?", or "what's the phone number for this hotel in New York?", or "how do I apply to be on the electoral roll for local elections if I am a non-citizen owner-occupier?"

There are official places patrons could have gone for help with this.  The Immigration department, the local Council or electoral commission and so on.  Then again, if you want to know the population of Belize you can also go somewhere other than your local library.  The point is that people feel both comfortable and confident going to the library - comfortable asking for information (because they know they won't be belittled for asking and the librarian will take their request seriously) and confident in the answer (because they trust the librarian to give them correct, unbiased information).  Libraries strive to be, and be seen to be, objective and open to everyone.  Other government services don't necessarily have the same reputation - talk to any Australian who has had to deal with Centrelink, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, or even Australia Post.

Get off our lawn

So far, so obvious.  Where this gets interesting is when you start to think about what this means in a future that, whilst not likely to be "paperless", is certainly going to see a larger proportion of our information and recreational reading material produced and distributed electronically and online.  This means a big change for public libraries at some unclear point in the future, but for others the wave has already hit.  Australian journalists woke to another set of horror numbers late last week.  Whilst editors talked up alleged growth in app and online readership, the truth is that more people reading your free online content doesn't pay the bills.  What was supposed to pay the bills was online advertising, but the 'rivers of gold' from print advertising earlier this century have dried up.  The problem for news sites is that their readership - or lack thereof - can be tracked article by article and page by page.  This has lead to the phenomenon of 'content marketing' and 'link baiting', where sites pay bottom dollar for staff to slap together a quick piece plagiarising the news gathered by actual journalists, then add a link to something vaguely related.  An excellent critique of this phenomenon can be found at

It gets worse than this for newspapers and journalism, however.  Where once columnists were an exclusive club who could fulminate from their newspapers without any competition or interaction, the rise of the blog and online comments is changing this dynamic.  Snide comments about the worth of bloggers, and the vindictive outing of anonymous bloggers who do a better job in their spare time are all opinion columnists have been able to come up with to fight back.  News sites post stories about Paris Hilton to increase screen hits, advertisers flee to more useful outlets and citizens read things that are 'newsy' rather than actual informative, objective news.

Essentially, modern journalism has been caught with its pants down.

I read recently of an intriguing discussion about the crisis in journalism, and the connection with libraries, at the Beyond Books: News, Literacy, Democracy, and America’s Libraries conference in April this year.  It sounds, as far as I can make out, like this was seen by participants as a way for two professions sharing similar threats to work together to overcome them.  I'm not sure I see it that way, however.  The articles in American Libraries talked about social media and blogs being a threat to both librarians and journalists.  This is a little bizarre.  Journalists create content.  Librarians assist people to access content.  How does more content threaten those who assist people to access and understand it?  Call me cynical, but this appears to be a desperate ploy by journalists to get librarians to do their work for them.  To this, I say bring it on.  We'll do your work and you can all find something else to do.  Because we're doing it already.

Libraries as publishers

Consider the Australian Parliamentary Library.  The library's main role is to assist members of Parliament with any information enquiries they may have, but one of the lesser-known but, in some ways, more important roles is the Library's publication of Research Papers on topics the library's staff feel are of immediate interest in national public discourse.  This sort of thing is also done by the New South Wales Parliamentary Libary and the Commons Library in the UK.  These libraries are publishing thoroughly researched, independent briefing papers on matter of immediate national or state importance, to inform both decision makers and the broader public.  These papers are generally succinct but thorough, easy to read and sometimes surprising.  They are, in other words, exactly what people bemoaning the death (and/or dearth) of long-form public interest journalism are looking for.

The idea of the daily newspaper being the gold standard of public discourse, objective analysis and 'holding government to account' was never really true, and is certainly not true now.  Anonymous bloggers, whatever their charms, can not fulfil these roles on their own.  The sort of factual dispassionate analysis that we desperately need and many people are looking for is ideally suited to the skills modern librarians have.  The necessary respect as an open and objective source of unbiased information is already ours.  When we cease having to spend so much of our time in physical transactions and fighting the entropy of physical storage systems, we'll have more time to roll out the Research Papers model through every publicly funded library.

It's time for librarians to become more pro-active in our roles.  Waiting in a room full of books for people to ask for assistance is a professional model which should remain firmly in the past.  Modern librarianship will, increasingly, be about refusing to wait.  It will be about infographics and research papers.  It will be about suggested reads at train stations and daily Twitter streams.  It will be about giving life to the information and stories we hold and have access to.   But this post is in danger of becoming too long, so you'll have to wait for me to expand upon all that later.  For the moment, I'll leave you to ponder this:

Are librarians the new journalists?