Wednesday, July 05, 2006

interview: Andrew Albanese: Library Journalist

Andrew Richard Albanese is currently associate editor, news and features, Library Journal. His freelance work has appeared in numerous publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Lingua Franca, and

Here he joins us for an interview, and we talk journalism, tech trends, and media matters for libraries.


W: As a reporter on the information-science beat, what sorts of topics have your most attention at the moment?

A: Well, in a word, Google. When I first began covering the information beat in 1999 I don't think I fully grasped how fortunate I was. I do now. Every day, thanks to the pace of technology, new issues emerge, usually with bracing, short-term "ain't it cool" aspects, and at the same time deep, complex, potentially dark implications for the future--implications that often fail to even show up on the radar of most citizens. All of which makes my job all the more meaningful. In many ways, speaking as a reporter, Google's emergence is a blessing. Not the service, nor the company per se, but as such a ubiquitous, remarkably nimble giant, the way they are pushing to the fore so many critical ideas about what our information future should look like. These are big, heady topics, Privacy, Net Neutrality, the erosion of the public's interest in copyright law in the age of the click on license. These are all hot topics for me at the moment. Without Google's pushing, I wonder how many of these issues would find their way to citizens.

How do you cull out hype to get at the real change-making stories?

You know, really, that's the job. More often than not you never know what a change-making story is when it's happening. For example, one of my most memorable scoops came when a librarian mentioned to me that she saw a collection of Malcolm X's personal documents were being sold on eBay. I took a look, did some digging, and reported it, thinking it odd that this valuable collection was being auctioned on online. Well, it turned out to be a major story, and, long story short, that collection today now resides at the New York Public Library. Now, all I did was report. The change? That came after. I could not have predicted nor wished for a better outcome, but I think that's a good example of how reporters operate. A reporter's responsibility is not so much to think about whether a story is change-making. It's more immediate--get the facts, spell names right, get it out. What happens or changes after that is out of our hands.

So what's your take on 'the future of the book'?

Ah, the end of the world as we know it. I've been terribly amused by John Updike's recent tirades. I'm sure some overblown thirteenth century poet sneered at the demise of iambic pentameter in much the same way. Coming from a publishing background, and now as a writer, I personally think print books will survive, primarily because print is as perfect a technology as we have for reading. You open a book and right away you're reading. No buttons, no batteries. You drop a book and it doesn't shatter. And nothing so far has shown the staying power of good old de-acidified paper. But this false notion that future generations should eschew the benefits of technology or multi-media in favor of staid, extended print tracts because of cultural reasons, well, that's nonsense. I think it's immodest of writers like Mr. Updike to assume that our culture is, after all these centuries, finally going down in ruins because his chosen medium may be changing beyond his control. The bookselling world has consolidated and essentially killed independent bookstores, yet keyword searching and snippets represent the demise of literature? Please. It's comical to me. I wanna shout, 'Hey Updike, what's with the "kids today" routine!?'

But there's a lot that's not so comical. When we talk about the future of the book, I think what we're largely talking about--at least now--is the future of the book industry. And a few things jump out at me. First, the industry is pretty inefficient in light of current technologies. Books are costly, relatively slow to get ideas to market, environmentally unfriendly, books must be printed, warehoused, shipped, shelved. There was a day when this was as efficient a system as could be. But any reasonable person would have to say that day has passed or is passing at least. What concerns me now more than the survival of the book is that today's major media companies, after a period of consolidation, are using DRM and poor legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to essentially create a separate rights regime for digital content, one governed by click-on licenses rather than copyright law. Believe this--many publishers will quickly get over their professed fondness for print once they learn how to control and exploit every single usage of their content in digital formats, essentially relegating "fair use" to a quaint old analog-era idea. So before any kind of real future of the book can be realized, I think some idea of balance must be restored to the copyright realm.

And what's your take on 'the future of the library patron'? I mean, if 'books' change, how will our users change?

I gather you're seeing more and more of that change every day. From what I've seen, I think the future of the library patron is more tied to things like MySpace than books or even Google. Beyond searching for information, libraries now have the capacity, I'll say even the mission, now more than ever, to create and nurture communities around their collections, both online and in the real world. This is an enormous opportunity. How libraries react to this moment in time will say a lot about our collective future. In an age where information exists all around us library patrons are more than ever looking for a value-added information experience. It would be a shame if the General Electrics and Rupert Murdochs of the world came to dominate that space. I know of no profession more poised or more prepared to make a difference in the information age than librarians.

Now and then I get worked up over the lack of libraries in the world. A) How do you think we can promote libraries in the world's poorest countries, and B) Should we work to promote our own (liberal Western) model of libraries, or will that have to change too?

I'd say get even more worked up, stay worked up, Woody. What always shocks me is that still, in today's day and age, the information age, communities are still all to willing to balance their budgets by cutting library budgets. I see this as a direct threat--that may sound dramatic, but still. I know I don't have to tell you that libraries truly are the core of our democracy. And what a bargain for what they deliver. I'd like to give more thought about what to do in poorer countries, but I'm still fairly worked up about what we still need to do in our own communities. For poorer nations, though, I would say infrastructure is the key issue. That includes roads, schools, hospitals and libraries.

What do you think, as a journalist, about editorializing in the news? I'm thinking of the running commentaries on FOX news (and also the intermittent surly remarks on NPR).

Well, it horrifies me, but at the same time the idea of an unbiased press has always struck me as a dangerous myth. Journalists are human beings. And most of us are dealing with non-mathematical facts, you know? On an individual level, like anyone else, we cannot escape and often can't even recognize our biases. Where it gets more complicated, and troubling, however, is when you look at the current corporate structure of our media system. An individual editorializing is democracy in action. A mega-company sponsoring an editorial agenda under the guise of unbiased journalism is a subversion of democracy. If you look at who owns major media companies in the U.S. today, the consolidation of wealth and the web of potential conflicts therein, it can be very disheartening. You can see the outright failure of our major media system in the run-up to war in Iraq. Networks and news organizations were far more interested in ratings, awards, rantings and especially in the great, prize-winning images they would beam back of their embedded reporters sheathed in kevlar riding tanks through a smoldering desert. Meanwhile, a war was being planned on false or at best incorrect pretenses. That's a major problem. I don't mind so much when reporters editorialize. But it's disturbing when you have Jayson Blairs and Judith Millers at the New York Times and have entire corporate TV networks with programs and reporters that all editorialize along the same ideological lines, under tag lines like "fair and balanced."

I've got to ask you about "leaks" from the government to the press. Some say there is a long, strong, historical precedent for leaking -- that it's an important way to get information to the people. Others say that leaking is a betrayal of trust and is dangerous to our democracy. What's your view?

I think both are probably true. But leaks are used just as much by the government as they are decried. Witness Valerie Plame. The question for me is: which should I fear more? A potential national security breach, or an administration that cows us all into relinquishing the oversight we as a nation have deemed necessary to preserve democratic ideals. He who controls information controls all, and personally I'm not comfortable putting my safety in the hands of what the executive branch deems classified, certainly not after the mistakes that have been made and the disclosures we've seen about domestic spying. I think it was Nixon, during Watergate, that had his attorneys argue that his power was as absolute as a Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and subject to no court in the land except impeachment. That's not the way I, or luckily the Supreme Court sees it, and I am thankful there are citizens brave enough to bear the truth under threat.

What general advice would you give librarians on working with the media?

Speak up! When you look at how many lines of media libraries get in local newspapers, it is remarkably small. And I know this has a lot to do with time issues--most libraries are busy being librarians rather than PR reps. But establishing relationships with your local newspapers is vital, especially when it comes to budget time.

So what sorts of projects do you have coming up for the rest of the year?

Well, believe it or not I'm writing a book about the book, centered around the litigation surrounding Google book search. I'm also hoping to begin film school next spring and hope to start moving into doing documentary work at some point. Regardless, you can rest assured I plan to stay involved with libraries and information issues forever.


Thanks Andrew!

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