Electronic News Libraries

By Chepsiuk, Ron | Editor & Publisher, September 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

Electronic News Libraries


Chepsiuk, Ron, Editor & Publisher


In May Of 1995, Peter Copeland, a correspondent with the Washington, D.C.-based Scripps Howard News Service, needed help fast. Scripps Howard had broken the story of the arrest of Steven Colbern in Arizona in connection with the Oklahoma bombing that killed 168 and rocked the country.

The only information Copeland had on Colbern was his former California address, and he wanted to follow up on his bureau's initial story.

Copeland called Sonny Albarado projects editor of the Memphis-based Commercial Appeal, a Scripps Howard-owned newspaper, for help. Albarado knew what to do. He went to Rosemary Nelms, director of Commercial Appeal's news library, as he often did in the past when needing information on demand.

She searched the library's computerized resources, and, within half an hour, gave Albarado a load of citations and documents obtained from the library's commercial databases, including California court records that provided important details about Colbern's life.

A decade ago, reporters and editors in timecrunching situations like that facing Albarado would not have found the information they needed.

But thanks to the rapid introduction of sophisticated online electronic library systems and computerized access to Internet and commercial database vendors, they are getting it easier and quicker.

Electronic library systems have become the operating norm at many large and medium-size newspapers in the country.

A study done by Kathleen Hansen and Jean Ward, journalism professors at the University of Minnesota, revealed that 67% of the newspapers with 100,000-plus circulations have electronic libraries installed and 90% have commercial database subscriptions.

"Since we did that study, virtually all newspapers of the 100,000-plus circulation size have gone online or have made the decision that they are going to be," Hansen explained.

Jim Hunter, librarian at the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, says that when he began working at the newspaper in 1974, the newspaper's library was a "clip file operation with black-and-white prints."

In 1982, he started experimenting with online databases. Three years later, Hunter persuaded the Dispatch to eliminate its clip file operation and begin going online. The newspaper has had a full-text library system since 1985. During the summer of 1995, the Dispatch started using another generation of the Vutext SAVE library system which will make the retrieval of information even faster.

"In the old days, so many clips would end up missing," Hunter recalled. "The online databases are so much more efficient. For example, you can search an obscure name in an article via a computer and it will appear. You would never find it if you had to rely on clips."

Advantages aside, installing electronic library systems can be costly, depending on what the newspaper wants.

Barbara Semonche, library director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says the cost can range from $100,000 to $400,000, depending upon the hardware and software installed and the amount of training involved.

"That's the initial investment cost and doesn't include the cost of maintenance and ensuring quality control," she explained. "Electronic library systems are highly labor intensive and that adds to the price tag."

Newspaper librarians agree that electronic library systems come with hidden costs.

"As librarians, we kind of laugh when somebody in the industry says how the electronic library systems will save the newspaper time and money," Nelms said. "We don't find that to be true. Sure we are not clipping anymore, but we are spending more time enhancing the stories and putting them in our [in-house] database."

Enhancing involves clarifying or adding information to stories retrieved from databases, such as cleaning up typesetting codes and inserting key words and descriptors when necessary. …

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