Shift Happens and then you Reboot – What Do Librarians Tell us about Journalism Culture

One topic I’ve talked, but never written, about are the similarities between librarians (and the library sciences industry) and reporters (in the journalism industry). Perhaps a third leg would be teachers and the education industry, but let’s focus on just librarians and reporters in this post.

A Similar Shift

We were in the Industrial Age. Our institutions were organized as such.  Schools, businesses and civic institutions, as we know them, came to be structured as they are today when Ford was the worlds most revolutionary and fundamental company.

Today we are entering, if not already immersed in, the Information Age. The most revolutionary and fundamental company is Google. Facebook is not far behind. Ford and GM, meanwhile, are restructuring.

But our institutions have not shifted. This isn’t a knock – it simply is not possible to shift institutions that fast. People in the newspaper industry say this all the time “we just aren’t nimble enough” and while true, it’s not neccesarrily the newspaper industries fault – it’s a result of being an industrial age institution. Just consider that the newspaper product is, in many was, an assembly line product.

It could be argued that all industrial institutions suffer from this shift to some extent.

Libraries and librarians are experiencing a similar disruptive shift. I love when I meet a librarian for two reasons. First, I was a student librarian and I loved it. I can say for a fact I wouldn’t have ended up in journalism had I not been working in the library at UC Berkeley. Secondly – because librarians are experiencing this very similar disruptive shift. If you’ve never thought about it before consider Google Book Search,, Wikipedia just for starters. Fifty years ago when students needed reference materials the librarian was their best friend. The libraries were in such demand that they had to create a structure so they could help as many people as possible. That structure was organized in the industrial age.

The way we collect and organize the worlds information has changed. For journalism this is bigger than just switching from print to the web in terms of offering a product. And for libraries this is bigger than just switching off the Dewey decimal system. The way we collect, organize and find information has fundamentally changed to empower more people to take a part in this process. That means our relationship to libraries has changed.

Newspapers, Libraries and….?

If we are shifting from an industrial age to an information age then ALL industrial age institutions will feel this shift. It makes sense, however, that the institutions which dealt with the exchange of information should feel it first. In the industrial age we still relied on the exchange of information. We always will, even if we left the information age. But the way we deal with information will fundamentally shift along with this new era and those institutions which were designed in the industrial age to deal with the flow of information are going to feel it first.

  • Newspapers
  • Libraries
  • Publishing
  • Many parts of law – Copyright (Creative Commons)
  • In education: Textbooks (just to start…. this is a mine field waiting to pop)
  • You tell me? What industrial age institutions dealt with the flow of information. (Music?)

And Then You Reboot

All the above is something I’ve had in my head for some time. Regular readers might not find anything new there. But something did pop into my head while having a discussion with Joshua Benton from Harvard’s Nieman.

We can look at how the culture of librarians are dealing with this transition to learn something about reporters. I am no academic so I have no idea how the larger culture or library sciences are dealing with the shift. I encourage a PH.D. student or some other academic type to consider this as a field of research. What I’ve done (which is hardly “research) is purely anecdotal and self-serving. But let’s explore the idea that…..

“Librarians might be better suited to make the transition.” If so… why? I see two big factors.

1. Libraries, for the most part, are not private companies. There is an economic sheltering.
That said, the more people that use libraries the more funding they’ll get just as the more people who view a paper the more advertising dollars they’ll see. So while the economic realities might be translated different – economic realities persist.

A more interesting one – and the “payoff” and inspiration for this post is the notion that librarians see their relationship to facts, truth and information different from reporters.

Librarians don’t see themselves as the creators or defenders of truth. That has never been in their job description. They don’t create anything – they are conduits. They help people find information, truth, facts, etc.
Journalists might argue that in the act of reporting they were surfacing new information in the world. Through their work knowledge, facts and truth that was unknown to the world would be exposed and known. The act of reporting and distributing a story was like birthing truth, information and facts into the world.

This isn’t wholly untrue. In fact, reporters did surface information that was not known to the larger world. But what a reporter does is very similar to a librarian. The reporter does not “create” that truth, knowledge or fact – the reporter exposes it. They are conduits. If the reporter is exposing “new” information it is coming from a source, often another human. Which means that source already had the information. No creation took place in the exchange between source and reporter. Similarly when a librarian wants to connect a customer to information they go to a source – a book.

Both professions connect users with information from sources. They do it in an inherently different means. Because reporters are a bit closer to “shoes on the streets” it can feel as though reporters are creating new knowledge instead of just acting as a conduit and this mental shift might be something that explains the difference between how individuals from two industries are dealing with the similar shift from the industrial age to the information age.

Note: The title of this blog post is courtesy of a collective tweet between myself and WebJournalist.

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