Thursday, August 4, 2016

Desk Set: News Librarians then and now

In the 1957 movie Desk Set starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, computer engineer Richard Sumner played by Mr. Tracy, plans to automate the TV network library run by Ms. Hepburn's librarian Bunny Watson. The librarian thinks her excellent memory can beat the computer's 'brain' in any fact-finding contest. In the end of course, Tracy and Hepburn fall in love and the computer does not replace the librarians, but only serves to supplement their brainpower.

I always loved Desk Set because in a strange life-imitates-art way, I was a librarian in a newspaper library before automation arrived. In the early 1980's I worked at the National Bureau of the Baltimore Sun. The bureau had offices in the National Press Building in Washington, DC and covered all the Washington news, every Federal agency from the White House to Congress to the Supreme Court. The reporters had incredible memories for their beats, but their filing systems seemed to be somewhat haphazard, consisting of piles of paper scraps and floppy discs surrounding their desks and weighed down by coffee cups. The bureau had a small library consisting of a few thousand books, a dozen or so regional newspapers and a wall of filing cabinets filled with clippings from those newspapers. The librarian maintained the clip files and created an index card file to search it. But mostly the librarian was expected to know every little thing off the top of her head - and quickly - because daily deadlines make reporters very anxious. When a reporter's brain or 'filing system' could not come up with the facts, he or she would run to the library demanding the information as soon as possible, preferably yesterday. Computerized news databases like Lexis Nexis were just coming on the scene at that point and the Sun did not yet have access to it. I had files on Congressional Budgets, Supreme Court cases, defense system tests, the invasion of Granada, the ongoing trial of John Hinckley and so on. Most importantly, I kept byline files for each correspondent. These files answered the frequent question,
An office filled with people fueled by lots of caffeine meant lots of fast talking and occasional  odd behavior, but I'm not telling. Well ok, there was the time a reporter flung all my files and books off my desk in a fit of pique. I stared at him speechless. He apologized and picked everything up like a small child. There was the reporter who would nap on the piled editions of newspapers on the library table display. There were the reporters who looked through my lunch bag to make sure I was not eating too much during my pregnancy. (Research, anyone?) There was the White House correspondent who told me what he thought about President Reagan's hair (Dyed? Probably.) There was the famous TV reporter who stole the library window. (Long story.) There was the copy boy who did not want to work in the library tearing articles for me because he thought he was destined for better things than that. I hope he found his Watergate by now.

But now, I don't know where all those old clipping files have gone or where people's memories have gone either. Newspaper research is so much easier using online research databases. Berkeley Heights Public Library has more newspapers online than I ever dreamed of back at the Sun. My clipping files could never compete with the resources listed on the library's Newspaper and Magazine Databases page. With a Berkeley Heights Library card, any patron can click their way through the entire New York Times back to 1857, The Star Ledger from 1989 to the current edition, the Independent Press back to 2006. Decades of the big regional papers I used to skim every morning, coffee cup in hand, like the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post and USA Today can be found in the Proquest National Newspapers Expanded database. Our Ebsco databases indexes and provides full-text of thousands of magazines and research journals. It really is incredible and easier than scrabbling around in the newspaper morgue or calling in favors from other news librarians. Although that was fun too.

New York Times online from BHPL Website

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