Journalism — the catalyst that connects communities and cultures in public libraries
Ilove libraries and have for as long as I can remember.
When I attended a US university as a foreign student in 1996, a friend of mine referred me for a job at the school library. I was thrilled because it fed two of my passions — a voracious appetite for news and information and a fascination with emerging technology. The library was a treasure trove of both.
I could access news from, and about, my home country that
I never had the opportunity to read before. And I could use the computer lab and databases to make the extensive research I needed to do much, much easier. Suddenly I was no longer constricted by printed books, microfiche, and microfilm; almost everything I needed was either at my fingertips or easier to find. I was mesmerized by it all.
As a social science reference librarian assistant I spent a lot of time teaching other students how to use databases like ProQuest UMI in order to perform research more effectively. I still remember the joy of seeing a student’s eyes light up when they discovered that the paper they’d left to the last minute could be delivered on time.
But my delight at working there wasn’t just about all the content and computers. I truly felt that I was part of a team of people who believed it was their civic duty/mission to help improve the lives of its members. I also learned a lot of invaluable skills that I use to this day in both my personal and business lives.
In 2003, while now attending grad school, my life took a new turn that today feels almost like Kismet. I was hired as a co-op student to work on, among others, a news product for the library market — Library PressDisplay (renamed PressReader in 2013). Being a news junkie and a lover of libraries, it was a perfect match for me.
Today, in my position in the company, I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of our library team, but I’m still proud that PressReader continues to advocate for two honorable and important institutions — libraries and journalism.
Together they can, and do, change the world.
The role of public libraries in the community
In October 2017, The Wall Street Journal ran a story about public libraries. It was refreshing to read how many these brick and mortar institutions have transformed themselves from custodians of content to the caretakers of communities.
One example of going above and beyond the call of civic duty was in Hennepin County in the American state of Minnesota. In 2016 the county’s public library answered 1.3M questions from members — more than the entire county’s population of 1.2M. Pretty impressive!
There is no question that reference librarians are the lifeblood of a public library. In the words of marketing guru, Seth Godin, they are “producers, concierges, connectors, teachers and impresarios.” It’s hard to argue with Seth when you discover all that they do. Along with lending out books and periodicals, reference librarians help people:
Write resumes and apply for jobs
Find social service, medical, and legal information and support
Set up email accounts and provide tutorials on how to use them and other apps
Teach classes in computer programming, website design, small business management, and even yoga
Host events with experts who offer advice on a variety of subjects • Create household budgets and discover new recipes
• Research historical information (e.g. weather, events, newspaper archives, and even family ancestries)
• Verify whether online news stories are true or fake
• Borrow everything from free museum passes, ties, briefcases, and jewelry (for job interviews) to WiFi hotspots for those who can’t afford WiFi at home
Some even lend out lamps that battle seasonal affective disorder and radon-testing kits for people’s homes. Whatever the needs of a community, public libraries are finding innovative ways to fill them.
Public libraries and journalism — too important to lose
According to Wayne A. Wiegand, author of Part of Our Lives: A People's History of the American Public Library, many US information technologists in the early 1980s forecasted the death of the public library by the millennium.
A similar projection was made for newspapers in 2012 when futurist, Ross Dawson, predicted that newspapers in their current form (i.e. print) would become extinct, starting in the US in 2017.
“I loved working with librarians. They are a special breed of people. They feel like it’s their civic duty, their mission in life to help others. And every time I’d go to a conference or trade show I’d see how passionate they were about seeking out new information, new tools, and products to help improve the lives of others.”
But the end of printed newspapers won’t be the end of quality journalism, just like the transformation of printed library resources into digital assets won’t be the death of public libraries. Quality journalism is the life force of mainstream media and it will survive without print in the webosphere. But what about libraries?
There are those who argue that Amazon should replace public libraries to save taxpayer money. I, for one, hope never to see that day. The value public library spaces and librarians bring to communities is far too great to lose.
In terms of newspapers, many printed editions are still alive, although they may not be kicking for long as more and more readers switch to digital.