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October 19, 2017

Journalists, your local librarian is a powerful ally

Photo illustrations by Kerry Conboy

Photo illustrations by Kerry Conboy

This is a guest post by Laurie Putnam, a communications consultant and a lecturer at the San Jose State University School of Information. 

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What if you had a partner who cared as much as you do about getting the facts right, meeting community information needs, and helping people think critically about the news? You might find that partner just around the corner—at your local library.

Librarians and journalists can be powerful allies. As a librarian who writes, I see every day that the substance of our work, in the library and the newsroom, is formed of similar elements. Questions and answers. Connections and community. Thoughtful research and accurate information. The library, as WBEZ Chicago’s Curious City discovered, is “ground receptive to any kind of curiosity,” a source for story ideas, audience engagements, and research support.

We share a community

Whatever community your newsroom serves, there’s likely a public library serving the same people. Your librarians are studying neighborhood demographics and information needs, mapping out strategic plans, and thinking about how to relate broader issues to the local territory. They’re also developing programs that invite ideas and discussion about things that matter to the people in your town.

At the San Jose Public Library in California, librarians are hosting a series of “community conversations,” gathering citizens to explore issues and aspirations for San Jose. Public input will help the city guide programs and strategies, identify new partnerships, and improve services. Over at the Skokie Public Library in Illinois, the pop-up Civic Lab invites residents to come together and talk about issues that affect the community. These are many of the same issues your newsroom covers: elections and immigration, net neutrality, free speech vs. hate speech. Members of the public can also suggest topics to tackle.

Could your newsroom contribute to programs like these, or learn from the insights they generate? Could you partner with your library to run features or explainers linked to some of these discussion topics?


We care about the same things

As professionals who believe democracy depends on open and equal access to information, librarians and journalists share interests and challenges. Storytelling, for starters. Research. Information policy. Healthy communities. Understanding the ways people find information, how they absorb and apply it, what sources they trust. Surfacing facts, and checking them twice. Clarifying our values in a world where objectivity and neutrality are loaded positions.

Sounds familiar, right?

Media literacy is one area with large swaths of common ground. Librarians, especially in school and academic environments, have long taught information literacy skills, helping students to capably and responsibly find, assess, and use information. Since “fake news” and “truthiness” have become household words, media and news literacy have become more important aspects of programs for students as well as the general public.

School library expert Joyce Valenza has built a News Literacy Toolkit for a “Post-Truth” World. “Nurturing information literate, responsible, active citizens is what librarians do,” says Valenza. “As the landscape continues to shift, librarians must update our own skill sets and toolkits to guide students in navigating a growingly nuanced universe of news.”

Programs for adults are also on the rise. Media Literacy @ Your Library, a collaboration of the Stony Brook School of Journalism and the American Library Association, and supported by Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Rita Allen Foundation, is one example. The program is working through public libraries “to address concerns about the spread of misinformation and produce ways to build trust in journalism.” In November, five libraries from Maine to California will begin pilot testing media literacy materials designed specifically for delivery by librarians.


Could your newsroom partner with a local library to start up or beef up a media literacy program? Could you offer insights into your news-gathering, reporting, and fact-checking processes, building local trust and relationships along the way?



There are easy starting points

There are plenty of other partnerships linking libraries and newsrooms. In Boston, WGBH operates a satellite studio from a dedicated space inside the Boston Public Library. In Texas, the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Public Library run Storytellers Without Borders, a program that teaches journalism skills to high school students using library resources. At the University of Missouri, the UM Libraries and Reynolds Journalism Institute are exploring ways to preserve digital content through the Journalism Digital News Archive. Around the country, a number of librarians write columns for their local papers.

Everywhere, there are easy ways to get to know your neighborhood library and explore possible partnerships.

Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Follow your local library on social media. Find out what your librarians are up to.
  • Visit their website. Many library services have gone digital, and the screen is now an extension of the building, a window into the library’s resources. Online you might even access a database that will help with your own research.
  • Visit your library in person. If you haven’t been there for a while, you might be surprised at what’s happening. Local history resources might even fill a blank spot in a story you’re working on.
  • Have lunch with your local library director. How many friendships and start-ups have sprung from cups of coffee and paper napkin sketches?
  • Invite your librarians to tour your newsroom. There’s a good chance they’ve never been there, and as Valenza suggested, librarians are also looking to develop their knowledge and skills. Make the exchange mutual.


Getting to know your local librarians can be well worth the effort. At the very least, you’ll form some new connections. At best, you’ll find some new allies and discover, together, new ways to increase the impact of your work and the strength of your community.


Laurie L. Putnam is a communications consultant and a lecturer at the San Jose State University School of Information. By day she coaches students on communications and helps high-tech clients tell their stories; by night she continues her work as founder of the Library and Information Science Publications Wiki. You’ll find her online @NextLibraries.

Photo illustrations by Kerry Conboy

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