The Libraries Bringing Small-Town News Back to Life

As local news outlets disappear in America, some libraries are gaining new relevance.  

A woman reads a newspaper in a library.
A woman reads a newspaper at the Bloomingdale branch of the New York Public Library. (Tina Fineberg / AP)

When a teenager began firing on students in Marilyn Johnson’s old high school east of Cleveland, Johnson searched everywhere to find out what was happening. She first saw the news on CNN, but she found out more on the town library’s Facebook page. The site was “the best, most detailed place to get breaking information,” she says.

Johnson had published an acclaimed book on the digital and community future of libraries just two years earlier—This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All—but she hadn’t predicted that the sharp decline in original local news could propel librarians into action. Since that 2012 shooting, more local newspapers have folded or shrunk, and a few libraries have ventured in to fill the vacuum.

It makes sense that librarians would get it right. Librarians understand the value of accuracy. They are familiar with databases. Americans by and large trust librarians, actually much more than they trust journalists. And in a nation where traditional local news outlets are cutting back, their advertising coffers drained by Google and Facebook, their ownership increasingly by hedge funds or other out-of-town enterprises, where else can a citizen go? In some communities, the questions are basic: Who will sift through and list the best events so residents could decide whether to participate? Who would understand what makes an area distinctive and would get its history right?

In New Hampshire, Mike Sullivan found himself in such an existential conversation last year. Town leaders and citizens bemoaned their bedroom community of Weare’s transformation into a “news desert” after a quarterly print publication closed the previous year. In Weare, best known as the longtime home of the former Supreme Court justice David Souter, the town’s senior club didn’t even know about the town’s senior exercise club. The community needed something, maybe a weekly paper, to let residents know what was going on.

By the time the conversation ended, Sullivan, the town librarian, had added eight hours to his workweek. He was now a weekly newspaper editor, too.

“I volunteered,” says Sullivan, who was already producing a weekly email newsletter from his library and the Facebook pages for the library and town. He also was running weekly guitar classes and activities like chess club. “When you are a small-town librarian, you say ‘yes’ to everything.”

Since March 2017, Sullivan’s weekly paper has boosted attendance at town events and promoted student accomplishments. It’s so appreciated by residents that some wait for it on Tuesday afternoons at the local Dunkin’ Donuts and other drop-off points, he says. One week, when the printer broke, residents made copies of the PDF and distributed it themselves, says Patti Osgood, a regional education official.

To be clear, libraries are no silver bullet to everything that ails local news. Sullivan's New Hampshire weekly won’t break investigations like The Washington Post. Libraries, with most of their funding dependent on local officials, aren’t a natural source for government-accountability stories. But library-backed efforts can help restore the foundation and appetite for local news—the love of community, curiosity about it, confidence to participate in it.

Various types of community building are happening across the nation. In some cities, libraries are partnering with established news sources, teaming up in Dallas to train high schoolers in news gathering or hosting a satellite studio in Boston for the public radio station WGBH. In San Antonio, the main library offers space to an independent video news site that trains students and runs a C-SPAN-style operation in America’s seventh-biggest city. (That site was the only video outlet covering a mayoral debate last year in which the incumbent mayor’s comments on poverty became a national story—and may have contributed to her electoral defeat.)

In smaller communities starved for local coverage, some libraries are playing a hands-on role, even if it is an expansion of traditional duties. In western South Dakota, the Black Hills Knowledge Network, aided by 13 area libraries, runs a news site for a region that has lost several weekly newspapers. It puts together data that show, for example, the disproportional arrests of Native Americans. The network also creates popular features to promote the area’s history, such as photo collections of billboards over the decades or the 1972 Black Hills flood.

This type of effort offers a new promise of relevancy for libraries, says Eric Abrahamson, a former South Dakota library board member who founded the Black Hills network. “The biggest information gap is local, because it’s not scalable,’’ he says. “In the age of Google, the hardest information to find is local.”

An evolved library role, with a focus on local information and outreach, could create a need for librarians familiar with creating or selecting content for expanded email newsletters and digital offerings. New librarians may need to reinforce information-science skills with journalistic tools in gathering and editing groups of citizen writers or hunting volunteers for news or event gathering.

At the University of Maryland, several journalism graduate students are taking courses at the information-science school—and vice versa. The two schools have launched a joint research project and will share a computational analyst, says Rafael Lorente, the associate dean for academic affairs and director of the master’s program at Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. As other schools are pursuing interdisciplinary studies, Maryland is, too.

Those new librarian-journalists, or mid-career adoptees like New Hampshire's Sullivan, may be part of a broader, reimagined role for libraries. For years, library futurists such as John Palfrey, the former head of the Harvard Law School Library and the founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, have been calling for a shift. Andrew Carnegie, who revolutionized America’s libraries by building 2,509 of them from 1883 to 1929, also brought the books (and librarians) closer to the people by removing the counters that separated the patrons from the stacks.

Palfrey, in his 2015 book BiblioTech, sees cardholders and librarians working even closer in an expanding laboratory space where people use information to “create new knowledge”: “Instead of remaining what was known as ‘laboratories for books’ at the end of the 19th century, when books served as the raw materials for scholarly inquiry,” he concludes, “libraries should be laboratories for a digital-plus era in which coproduction is the norm.”