Is the Line Between Librarianship and Journalism Blurring?

July 27, 2011

What do journalists and librarians have in common? How can collaboration on their common ground make libraries and the media better for our democracy? More than 125 attendees worked on these questions for two days in April at the first-ever conference of its kind—“Beyond Books: News, Literacy, Democracy, and America’s Libraries”—immediately preceding the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston. The group was convened by Journalism That Matters, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to making the media more accessible, diverse, and conducive to civic engagement.

Protecting sources

Both the library and journalism professions are undergoing profound transformations essential to their survival. Both depend on, disseminate, and create information for a living, and provide it in multiple formats— from paper to Twitter. In the United States, both professions also share the values of transparency and freedom of speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Newsrooms and libraries produce information essential to the healthy functioning of democracy. Ironically, they are also threatened by the same social media that help them thrive: It is harder to verify “facts” and to provide “objectivity”—if there ever was such a thing. And the definitions of who is a “real” reporter or a “real” librarian are getting murkier every day.

David Weinberger, senior fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, presented a provocative model of “Knowledge as Transitional.” The coauthor of Cluetrain Manifesto, Weinberger believes that 21st-century knowledge is not obtained in a linear fashion but in a more random process involving a variety of sources building on each other (such as the web). As a result, libraries and journalists are gathering information in ways that demand new skills and organization of services.

Weinberger’s remarks inspired participants to think beyond the traditional boundaries of our respective professions and to consider creative new ways to serve the public. Of course, some librarians and journalists are already doing just that:

  • Some public libraries house community newsrooms or public access television studios;
  • A Brooklyn project is putting cameras into the hands of young people to create news in underserved communities;
  • A thriving community information portal about suburban Chicago is sponsored by Skokie (Ill.) Public Library and was created by Northwestern University’s journalism school.

These enterprising civic-engagement experiments underscore the challenge of energizing young people to become citizen journalists and frequent library users.

While the conference provided us with a rare opportunity to think deeply about our professions and how they can be more instrumental and relevant to the 21st-century democratic process, the danger of such conversations is that they don’t lead to actual projects. To avert that, the conference held a planning session at Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library in which we were challenged to join a future or ongoing project that intrigued us. The consensus was to look at existing success stories and try to replicate and publicize them; a subsequent consensus statement aims to keep up the momentum and mark the beginning of an important collaboration between the two professions.

Two months later, two journalists who participated in the “Beyond Books” conference, Mike Fancher and Bill Densmore, brought the message to a panel on civic engagement at the 2011 American Library Association Annual Conference in New Orleans. Program attendees were particularly enthusiastic about the potential for librarians and journalists to collaborate on meeting information and civic needs through LibrariUS, a partnership between ALA’s Public Library Association and American Public Media’s Public Insight Network. Fancher blogged about the ALA panel on the Beyond Books blog hosted by Journalism That Matters.

BARBARA JONES is director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.