What’s it like to be a news librarian? Or “What are the most popular names Popes have taken throughout history….and can you get that for me in 10 minutes?

By Laura Mosher
Reference Librarian/CEP & CME Liaison
 People who work in print and broadcast media have very specific information needs, something I discovered during Library School when one of my professors brought in a guest: the head of the library at the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper.  I was fascinated by the role that librarians played at the Post-Standard, impressed by the work they did to make sure their reporting staff had all the information needed when writing a story, and a little in awe of how fast it all happened. I was reminded of that fast-paced information-filled environment on June 24 when I attended an evening get-together of the Hudson Valley Chapter of the Special Libraries Association, where the special guest speaker was Kee Malesky, one of the librarians at National Public Radio (NPR).Ms. Malesky is a long-time librarian for NPR, and if you’ve listened to Weekend Edition, you may have heard her name – or the names of other staff librarians – in the closing credits of the program. I remember even before I was a librarian hearing the reporters giving credit to the librarians who assisted them on stories, and being pretty impressed by that. It’s an excellent indicator of how much librarians are valued at the organization, as Ms. Malesky described in her presentation. She started her talk by explaining that at NPR’s founding, the first employee was an information professional, and a Librarian with an MLS was hired 3 years after the organization’s founding – just the beginning of many decisions made with an awareness of how important librarians are to the work that NPR does.  Even in tough economic times, when programming has been cut due to funding issues, librarians have been retained because of their contributions to the success of the organization.  One statistic that Ms. Malesky shared: during a recent year, the NPR library staff responded to 12, 000 questions!

We have all heard the phrase “change is the only constant” applied to the Library profession – and Ms. Malesky’s presentation certainly confirmed that. She’s been at NPR since 1985, and over that time period the NPR Librarians went from maintaining clipping files to building an internal wiki for the entire company; from cataloging and using a print collection of a few thousand reference books to using electronic resources almost exclusively; and from occupying a lovely set of rooms and reading areas to having librarians embedded in various areas of the organization (science, features, weekend), right alongside the reporters.  

Ms. Malesky described the wiki that she and her colleagues built for NPR in preparation for the election of a new Pope:  it included the history of the papacy; the names, in alphabetical order, of every Pope; information about the papal garments; an outline of the election process; and facts about the cardinals who were the most likely candidates, along with pronunciation guidelines for unusual names! The wikis she creates can be accessed by everyone at NPR, and the information can be worked into a variety of different broadcast stories, so it needs to be comprehensive and timely.

Since we’re in the process of “embedding” ourselves with our departments, at the close of her presentation I asked Ms. Malesky what benefits she felt arose from being embedded with the reporters; she described being able to overhear conversations about upcoming news stories, and being able to offer help when she heard something discussed that she could assist with, as the best aspects of having a desk in the heart of the operation – both allow her to anticipate the needs of her patrons and respond quickly and appropriately to their information requests. In addition, she and her colleagues have received increased recognition from NPR journalists, and are invited to sit in on meetings to plan future stories, so they are more involved than ever in the final product that we hear on the radio. She even mentioned that after the Weekend Edition broadcasts, everyone – journalists, librarians, etc. – gather around a common table for lunch, and called her colleagues a great group of people.

In case you’re interested in reading a bit about the NPR library and librarians, and the work they’ve done over the years, there have been several articles published on their reference services and the databases they’ve created to provide access to their spoken word and music recordings. Here are links to a few of those articles:

On the Air and on Deadline at National Public Radio. By: Bolt, Nancy, American Libraries, 00029769, Feb2000, Vol. 31, Issue 2

 Broadcast Collaboration. By: Mathews, Brian, American Libraries, 00029769, Sep/Oct2011, Vol. 42, Issue 9/10:

Embracing the Archives. By: Sin, Lauren, Daugert, Katie, Computers in Libraries, 10417915, Mar2013, Vol. 33, Issue 2

Thanks to Karen Shea, Past President of the HVC/SLA, for letting me know about the event, and making it possible for me to attend!

Communication Initiative