Kee Malesky, NPR’s longest-serving librarian, was in New York on October 15 for a talk and an afternoon “salon”. Sponsored by METRO, she was promoting her recently-published, second book, Learn Something New Every Day.
At the salon Malesky spoke informally about her career and answered questions from librarians and archivists in attendance. The evening book talk was a bit more formal, much more crowded, and equally interesting. The report below includes additional information culled from elsewhere, including the book This is NPR: The First Forty Years.
After being under the News umbrella, the NPR library is now part of NPR’s Digital Media, This makes sense, as the NPR librarians perform research duties for the entire organization, not just the News department. Indeed, there is no centralized library: librarians are embedded throughout the newsroom and within various desks and shows. In all, they field more than 11,000 reference questions per year, produce briefing books for major events, work on investigative projects, and keep an internal wiki, among other things.
Malesky and her colleagues regularly help other departments with pronunciation (which can be tricky), statistics, and other research questions (including something as apparently inane as “How many days till Election Day?”). Malesky’s strategy is almost always the same: to find and contact the expert person or organization, who is usually honored by the recognition of being asked by an organization like NPR.
The library currently employs the equivalent of about 14 full-time librarians. This is a huge number for a news organization, and Malesky credits NPR’s management with valuing and keeping these professionals, particularly at a time when many other news organizations are reducing or eliminating their libraries. (As examples, Malesky mentioned that the Wall Street Journal has no librarian, and that membership in the “News” Division of the Special Libraries Association has become much smaller over the years.) According to Malesky the first person All Things Considered hired was an information specialist (Carolyn Jensen), highlighting the importance that the organization has placed on research from the start. Then program director Bill Siemering said that they "wanted to ensure we could provide news of events and ideas in a context that gives them meaning." NPR's Caitlin Sanders writes: "Even from the beginning, research and librarians were so important to NPR that we hired an information specialist to assist staff with story ideas and background information even before we hired the reporters."
Except for a few reference tomes, the NPR library is about to become all-digital. In preparation of its impending move to a new building, it is digitizing the last of its analog audio tapes and sending the physical tapes to the University of Maryland’s Library of American Broadcasting. The days of having to consult the old newspaper clipping file seem far behind.
The NPR library uses three information management systems:
1. Artemis for managing NPR programs (as well as other production elements and historical audio)
2. Orpheus for prerecorded music
3. Hermes for contacts and subject specialists
NPR librarians built Artemis after deciding against other digital asset management systems in the market. Artemis is a customization of the cataloguing tool Collective Access; it integrates with NPR's NewsFlex custom production system and with DAVID’s MultiTrack Editor (MTE) system. The Artemis interface is integrated into all NPR desktops and it links to a catalog entry (not always perfect) of every program since 1971: in all, more than 771,000 entries, including more than 322,000 with transcripts.
NPR librarians catalog all incoming news items to their system. Cataloging materials without a written transcript requires the much slower process of listening to the material; this is part of the backlog for the library. The library has created its own taxonomy, and librarians meet regularly to ensure that they are consistent with their use of subject terms and spellings. As with the rest of the Digital Media staff, librarians spend two to three “Serendipity Days” per year, where they stop working to try to spell out and work on issues buried by their day-to-day activities.
NPR has made the effort to create award-winning training videos for Artemis, while the Knight Foundation funded a project to train journalists in web reporting. All of this places the NPR Library at the forefront of broadcast information specialists.
Kee Malesky is a native Brooklynite, so she is in New York City often. We look forward to hearing her again, and to reading her next book.