Posted on November 25, 2012.
“I’m not Garrison Keillor’s researcher.”
That was how National Public Radio reference librarian Kee Malesky humorously introduced herself at a book talk on October 15th, co-sponsored by the Metropolitan New York Library Council and SLA NY.
Malesky’s second book of facts, “Learn Something New Every Day,” is just out, and includes 366 days’ worth of entries for a leap year, many derived from research requests she’s worked on during her career at NPR.
The Brooklyn native told the audience she hadn’t anticipated such a professional path, but after her husband was hired as a producer at NPR in the 1970s, the couple never followed through on plans to move back to the New York area, so she too got a job at the Washington, D.C. based network, initially as an “administrative drudge.” Eventually, after leaving to attend library school at Catholic University, she returned to NPR as a librarian in 1984.
|“There still has to be good journalism, and I don’t believe there can be good journalism without essential library research behind it.”
The succeeding 28 years have been filled with fact checking, background research and finding experts, as she described it. During that time, her department’s role expanded to also include pronunciations, which she called “the biggest headache,” trying to balance native pronunciations with what the American ear is used to hearing.
Her all-time favorite research request? Verifying that all of New England could fit inside South Dakota, with approximately Delaware to spare.
At the talk, Malesky read several entries from her new book aloud, and then took questions. Among the topics discussed was the continual slashing of news library jobs, as she particularly lamented the fact that the Wall Street Journal no longer has a library, providing a recent example where that came back to bite the paper.
In an exclusive interview afterward, she shared more of her thoughts on the state of the industry. An abridged version follows.
Q. What’s the future for news libraries?
Kee Malesky: I have to admit, being at the end of my career and I hope close to retiring, I’m not personally invested in that, but I want to be optimistic. I just can’t believe the world isn’t going to recognize that some mistakes have been made. In an economic crisis, I understand if a news organization is cutting editors and reporters, and cutting beats, and not covering foreign events anymore and running wire copy instead, of course they had to cut the librarians too, but I want it all to come back. New formats—I don’t care web or paper—there still has to be good journalism, and I don’t believe there can be good journalism without essential library research behind it.
Q. What do you tell young people who want to get into the business?
KM: I tell them that it’s going to be all about flexibility. You need to see the need for your skills, and go and pitch yourself. You’re certainly not waiting for somebody to come and offer you a job. The example of the Wall Street Journal, after they closed their library, what happened was another news librarian I know went to the Wall Street Journal and said, “Don’t your editors need guides to research and some help in how to find things?” Things that we would call “pathfinders” in library school. And they gave him a job… So that’s what I tell people in library school now. I’m very pleased to see that you’re optimistic enough to go and get the degree, and when you come out, unless the world is a new magical place and these problems have gone away, that’s what I think you’re going to have to do. You’re just going to have to be more creative, adaptable, flexible. See the need and go and pitch what you can do for them. Don’t worry about being called a librarian or working in a library. It’s about the skills you have.
Q. What do you think has changed the most in the years that you’ve had your job and what do you miss the most?
KM: I like books. I like the way books smell. I used to like walking into that New York Times collection upstairs and smelling old paper. I just miss books because that’s how I started out, but I also realize that I sometimes get a question and I stop and think, how would I have done this in print? I don’t know anymore. Certainly not, how could I answer this in 10 minutes or one hour? You used to write to the GPO to get a document or an agency report and wait six weeks. And now two seconds after it’s released or the day before it’s released, it’s on the agency’s website and we’ve got it and we can get it out to anybody who needs it. So there’s no impact on librarianship greater than the Internet, but it’s not entirely positive. There are many bad things about the Internet. There’s a huge amount of garbage out there that certainly wastes our time trying to plow through it.
Kee Malesky’s books, “All Facts Considered” and “Learn Something New Every Day” are available in print, aromatically impeccable, from entirely positive Internet entities such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.