Searchlights and Sunglasses:
Five lessons for the library world

Why would librarians and LIS educators pay attention to a journalism textbook? Because the digital shift is affecting journalists and librarians in many of the same ways. And because we haven’t seen a textbook like this before.

Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism is a free, interactive textbook by the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton, and it’s worth paying attention to.

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This ebook is a conversation starter. It wasn’t written for the library world, but it speaks our language. It tackles many of the same issues librarians and other information professionals are grappling with as technology changes fundamental elements of our work. It’s beautifully written and fun to read, and it gives us a model for texts that can come alive in the hands of students, educators, and professionals who want to learn more about the state of their craft.

The backstory

Those at the Knight Foundation say, “We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.” That’s a mission librarians can get behind.

The philanthropic legacy of a newspaper publishing family, the Knight Foundation has looked beyond newsprint to “promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities, and foster the arts.” Over the years foundation leaders have spent millions of dollars informing and engaging communities through library programs, and recent grants have encouraged entrepreneurial outreach, enabling the New York and Chicago public libraries to lend wireless hotspots and Tennessee librarian Jason Griffey to internationalize LibraryBox, a device that improves information access in areas with limited internet connectivity. In other programs, many of Knight’s media- and arts-related grantees are developing projects that complement libraries by meeting community information needs in creative ways.

Five reasons

So there are good reasons to know what the Knight Foundation is up to. There are also good reasons why librarians and library and information science (LIS) educators should check out Searchlights and Sunglasses. Here are five.

1. It’s a model of what learning media can be.

At first glance, you might mistake Searchlights and Sunglasses for something other than a textbook—perhaps anything but a textbook. The opening page pulls you into a multidimensional world populated by lively stories and graphic surprises. Curious objects drift by, waiting for you to interact with them.

But there’s more than visual appeal. For students and professionals, the basal text is informative, engaging, and thought provoking. It asks good questions and doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Educators can dig deeper into the “learning layer” and explore easily adaptable lessons, activities, and discussion questions, along with links to additional resources. Everywhere you look, every time you return, there’s more to discover. Let this be an inspiration to our textbook developers: it’s an experiment we can learn from.

Searchlights and Sunglasses also gives us a lesson in sustainability. The text was launched with a plan to extend the conversation through EducationShift, a segment of PBS’s MediaShift that hosts online discussions and curates coverage of journalism innovation, entrepreneurship, law and ethics, tools and tips, and perspectives. It’s “moving journalism education forward,” and it’s just the kind of program we could use to move library and information science education forward.

2. The metaphor works for us, too.

Newton points out that “through the centuries, we have used the symbol of a shining light to signal a search for truth,” but the metaphor was more useful when information was scarce and hard to find. Now it’s not. Today, along with searchlights to illuminate the right information, journalists (and yes, librarians) need to provide readers with digital sunglasses that help filter out a blinding abundance of information.

Librarians need new metaphors too, and this is a good one. Read the introduction, if nothing else, and see how closely the world of the journalist might relate to your world. “Almost everything is in flux: who a journalist is, what a story is, when and where the news arrives and how we deal with newly interactive communities,” writes Newton. “The challenge is to find our place as both chroniclers and curators of a new world, to add today’s digital skills and ideas to the mix, and get on with it, because much more is on the way.” This is our world too.

3. It helps us put libraries into the context of an information ecosystem.

Communities need a diversity of people, organizations, and resources to stay healthy, and the Knight Foundation takes a holistic view of those ecosystems. There’s a lot of emphasis on meeting community information needs. Even though the foundation’s roots are deep in journalism, its grant programs aren’t about sustaining existing media or institutions or jobs; they’re about understanding what helps a community thrive and finding the best ways to support those things. Maybe there’s a newspaper involved, and maybe the community needs something else entirely.

Searchlights and Sunglasses is a good reminder that libraries and librarians are part of a larger information ecosystem. We support informed and engaged communities, we capture and share knowledge, we nurture culture and curiosity—but we don’t do it alone, and we do it in many different ways. Along with the media, schools, museums, and a whole bunch of other organizations and individuals, we can be what Pew Internet Project director Lee Rainie calls “nodes in people’s social networks,” nodes that play different roles with different partners in different places. Sometimes there’s a book involved, and sometimes the community needs something else entirely.

4. It prompts us to think about how LIS education might need to change.

When a field of practice changes, its educational system needs to change too, and there’s some vigorous national discussion about the best ways to train modern journalists. Chapter 2 of Searchlights and Sunglasses focuses on the need for educational innovation in a profession where skills and expectations are moving targets.

Have we welcomed that kind of provocative debate in the library world? We talk a lot about the evolution of libraries, but do we talk enough about the evolution of library education? Are our degree programs teaching students to be omnivorous learners and ready adapters as they shift into the work world? Are we training students to be innovative thinkers and institutional entrepreneurs? Are we helping them learn to become embedded in their communities? Do we dare challenge our graduates, as Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen challenges graduating journalists, to “go forth and accelerate disruption“?

In pockets, yes, absolutely. Overall, I think we can do better. Educators can help shape the future of libraries by reshaping LIS education.

The craft of journalism—like librarianship—has been evolving as paper and ink dissolve into
bits and bytes. In many areas, life in the field is moving faster than our educational systems.

 

5. It’s packed with useful information and resources.

Searchlights and Sunglasses can help us frame a discussion of how the digital world is affecting the information professions. Whatever your association with the library community, in this text you’ll find something worth knowing, or perhaps thinking about from a different perspective. Some topics point straight at library and information science, while others hang at the periphery. In chapter 1, there’s the evolution of human communication and storytelling tools. Chapter 2 looks at the transformation of education, and chapter 3 turns to freedom of expression and information policy. You’ll find community engagement and impact in chapter 4, and “simmering opportunities” in chapter 5. These are relevant topics, whether you’re a public librarian or a data journalist.

Time to explore. And start some conversations.

Resources

Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism (2013) is a resource for journalism educators by Eric Newton, senior advisor to the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

EducationShift, a segment of PBS’s MediaShift supported by the Knight Foundation, “aims to move journalism education forward with coverage of innovation in the classroom as journalism and communications schools around the globe are coping with massive technological change. The project includes a website, biweekly Twitter chats at #EdShift, mixers and workshops, and webinars for educators.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those at the Knight Foundation say, “We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.” That’s a mission librarians can get behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, along with searchlights to illuminate the right information, journalists (and yes, librarians) need to provide readers with digital sunglasses that help filter out a blinding abundance of information.

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