Broadcast Collaboration

A look inside the NPR library

September 16, 2011

“Remind me how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull?” “What music should I play for a piece about polar bears?” “David Hasselhoff—singing at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Can you find tape?”

Welcome to a typical day at the National Public Radio library in Washington, D.C., where over 10,000 such requests come in each year from staff, producers, and correspondents in the United States and around the globe. From fact-checking and pronunciation to background music, audio clips, and transcripts, the library helps deliver the news.

NPR’s collections are unique. While there are some print books, serials, and access to numerous commercial databases, the bulk of the collection consists of the audio archive of NPR news programs. Over 40 years of audio is stored on reel-to-reel tapes and CDs. Additionally, the library is digitizing thousands of tracks of musical recordings in preparation to move to the new NPR building in 2013. The archive also contains spoken-word materials: speeches, commercials, television show clips, and other historical and pop-culture references.

Laura Soto-Barra is the senior librarian, overseeing a staff of 17 plus interns. Embarking on this challenge six years ago, she helped to create a cohesive identity for the library by blending together the previously separate reference services and broadcast library, and by forming a team of researchers, digital and broadcast technologists, project managers, taxonomists, indexers, editors, trainers, and strategists.

Soto-Barra is a strong library advocate. “My job is to lobby for my staff. I make sure people are aware that we can help them.” Spending much of her time in meetings and talking with NPR staff at all levels, she is constantly reaching out. “I’m always volunteering how we can assist with whatever topic is pitched, offering research and staff hours or any additional help for projects.”

It’s necessary for this library to anticipate the needs of its users. One way is through an internal wiki that provides information on potential stories such as anniversaries, upcoming political meetings, and cultural events. For example, with the arrival of hurricane season, library researchers pull together background files, including storm names, damage records, financial impacts, and previous NPR stories.

The librarians constantly monitor hot topics and breaking news. Several have their desks located in newsrooms throughout the building, placing them in the middle of all the action. Being embedded with the reporters allows the librarians to be involved with planning and production. “When you sit with reporters and work on a deadline together, it makes you part of the team,” Soto-Barra explains. But co-locating librarians close to their users is just one way to collaborate; librarians are also embedded in production through collaboration with NPR developers on digital projects.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the library is the anticipated move of NPR headquarters. The library is tasked with abandoning all physical formats in its new space. No tape reels, CDs, or print volumes—everything, including 130,000 hours of audio programming—must be converted into digital formats.

Another strategic project is Artemis, a digital asset management system that is a customization of Collective Access, an open-source product that will enhance search and retrieval by capturing NPR’s archival data model. This project will bring efficiencies to content production workflow and eliminate physical formats by implementing a “born digital” archival workflow for NPR programming. The library team also created scripts to pull metadata from transcripts to create shell catalog records, almost a million of which are migrating into the system. This is a source of pride for the librarians, who have leveraged open source solutions and industry standards to enable innovation and create new partnerships in NPR and in public media organizations. It is expected that Artemis will greatly improve workflow and enable librarians to focus more on content curation, taxonomy development, and other projects. Soto-Barra also envisions future access and sharing of archival material with hundreds of local NPR stations around the country.

NPR has transitioned beyond radio to become a digital media organization. Content that is broadcast over the airwaves is also pushed out to the web and mobile apps in text and audio formats. NPR is expanding its audience as well, by broadening into other digital formats including blogs, podcasts such as Pop Culture Happy Hour, and music and video offerings.

For the past 40 years, NPR has delivered unique insight and cultural programming. Today the library’s role is more critical then ever; not only does it help shape the content, but it also ensures its discoverability.

BRIAN MATHEWS is assistant university librarian at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.