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.