Fresh from the School of Information and Library Science with degree in hand, Barbara Semonche (MSLS '76) was looking for a job. When a friend suggested she contact The Herald Sun newspaper, Semonche's response was, “Do newspapers have libraries?” Indeed, The Herald Sun did not.
“Being a little cheeky, I asked 'Well, would you like to have one?'” Semonche said. The managing editor said yes, and she proceeded to write her own job description and salary. So began Semonche's career as a newspaper librarian. Back then, when newspaper libraries were called “morgues” and served as storage for yellowing stacks of newspapers, librarians like Semonche worked aggressively to demonstrate their value to the news operation.
After her position was deemed indispensable at the Durham, N.C., newspaper (friends there called her “commander-in-chief excelsior”), Semonche became the librarian for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Park Library in 1990. For her service to the profession, the Special Libraries Association (SLA) this spring presented her its John Cotton Dana Award, adding yet another to the long list of accolades she has received from the national organization. The award recognizes exceptional service to special librarianship.
“I'm absolutely stunned, surprised and very, very grateful,” Semonche said. She credits the organization, which she joined in 1977, with providing many of the tools she needed to build a successful career. “It introduced me to people who knew more about this profession than I did,” Semonche said. “The members of the SLA, especially the News Division, were good mentors and friends, as well as colleagues.”
The savvy Semonche has returned those favors many times over to others who are just starting out. She serves as the list owner of NewsLib, an international electronic mailing list for news librarians and researchers, and the list administrator for SLA Fellows. Her zest for new knowledge, lifelong learning and professional development link her closely to SLA, as well as her alma mater.
“SILS is this network, it's the real live web, and it's the connections you have with your former students, your former professors, the deans and the staff,” Semonche said. “SILS has been an important part of what I've learned, how I've learned it and how to keep on learning.”
Her expertise in special libraries and librarianship has taken Semonche across the globe. As The Freedom Forum/Special Libraries Association Fellowship winner, she went to Romania and Poland in 1996 to give Internet training to librarians. In 2001, she went to Hungary to give Internet tutorials to media archivists at the Freedom Forum's news library at the Center for Independent Journalism. She has also given presentations and toured media archives in Amsterdam, Netherlands and Denmark. Back at UNC's Carroll Hall, Semonche taught a class on database journalism and serves as a class speaker and Internet coach for students and faculty.
While she is a sought-out and seasoned professional today, Semonche wincingly recalls her rocky introduction to special librarianship, a position that blossomed into a 13-year career at The Herald Sun. Working with rotary files eight feet long, ten feet high and four feet deep, Semonche built the newspaper's library with reference materials, photos and newspaper clippings organized by subject and reporter's bylines. She said that though the system had its drawbacks, including misplaced files and the eventual deterioration of clippings, news librarians now face an even greater challenge with the sophisticated technology available to them.
“We have to know an awful lot more about technology than we ever did before,” Semonche said. “It's made it faster, but it's also made it harder. With so much information, it's difficult to find out ‘is it complete?' “is it accurate?' and ‘is it current?'”
In addition, print media are cutting losses with fewer editions, smaller newsrooms and, as a result, fewer librarians. Semonche noted that following the recent merger between AOL and TimeWarner, the library was dismantled.
Because there are fewer of them, news librarians are expected to be more versatile, taking on tasks like teaching reporters how to do research. Some librarians even come up with ways to generate income from their department, like repackaging and selling newspaper photographs and drawings. News librarians are more integral partners with reporters and editors in the newsroom. Some papers now give credit lines to recognize librarians' contributions.
“We've always used librarians as our top researchers but now they are also managers, coaches and entrepreneurs,” Semonche said. “News librarians are now seen as people who can contribute significantly to research. They're more central to what's going on.”