Washingtonpost.com Publisher Marc Teren Links Future of Libraries and MediaBy Patricia C. Bangs
As "information navigators," both libraries and the news media are successfully reinventing themselves to stay relevant in the digital age, explained Marc Teren, president and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, in a recent speech to the Fairfax County Public Library staff.
"We are similar in many ways," remarked Teren in a keynote address at the Library's annual Staff Day, a half-day in-service event that hosted almost 500 Library staff on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University. "Unfortunately that means we are seen by some as relics of an analog era. Soon to be replaced by ubiquitous access to a global pool of information open 24 hours a day and available in a den or office near you. Accused of being unnecessary or irrelevant, we are being asked to reinvent ourselves to secure our future in a digital world."
Teren, who took the helm at Washingtonpost.com in December 1996, readily admits that his experience in the information business is relatively new. Previously in charge of developing interactive entertainment services for The Walt Disney Company, Teren brings a businessman's acumen (and an M.B.A. from Harvard) to the dissemination of information in the digital age. But he understands the key role of the "information navigator," whether a librarian or newspaper reporter, in the electronic era.
Referring to an image familiar to librarians of the Internet as a library with all its books strewn on the floor, Teren explained, "The ability to make sense of information is a skill even more in demand in the age of the Internet. Searching for authoritative information online is like setting sail in a hurricane. Most of us sailors will get swamped before we reach our destination. People need help navigating the swelling sea of information to be found on the Internet. That is where we come in. That is why I believe our role is more important now than ever."
Citing statistics that 77 percent of Fairfax County residents own library cards and 82 percent of the County population uses the library, Teren feels the Fairfax County Public Library is successfully involving the community in their local libraries — a key to staying relevant in the information age.
Just as Washingtonpost.com wants to be an extension of what its community of users perceive The Washington Post to be, libraries want their consumers to use the library as an extension of their home and the larger community in which they live, Teren believes. "Once at the library you can connect them to a world of information and a range of services that meet their growing information needs. And those needs are growing. And they will continue to grow," he explained.
Teren highlighted a fact familiar to librarians, that the public library is the number one alternative point for accessing the Internet outside of home, work, or school. Teren suggests that since the number of individuals using the library as an alternate access point to the Internet continues to increase, "The Internet is likely to grow rather than shrink your audience. As always you are the access point for individuals of all economic backgrounds . . . For many, and particularly for those for whom the playing field is not always equal, you are the access to the Web and as such the gateway to knowledge, information and exploration. Seems to me that your position in the community is more important than ever."
Teren also talked about the viability of print in an age of rapidly developing electronic formats. Noting that annual paper consumption rose from 86.8 to 99 million tons from 1990 to 1998, according to recent statistics from the American Forest and Paper Association, Teren gave Mark Twain's well-known witticism a new twist: "Predictions of a paperless society have been greatly exaggerated." He continued, "Despite the popularity of the Internet, it appears we have not yet lost interest in reading text on paper. As a matter of fact, thanks to Amazon.com, interest and access to books has never been higher. Based upon their 20-plus billion-dollar valuation, I'd say the markets are betting that print on paper still has quite a future."
But, it is in the new electronic medium that traditional information disseminators must be most creative. Teren described a new partnership between Washingtonpost.com and Encyclopedia Britannica that provides individuals with in-depth access to the encyclopedia's resources as it relates to current news.
He concluded his remarks by congratulating the library profession on being "early-adapters" to the information age. "You are one of the first professions to become expert at making sense of the Internet. And I read that librarians have been in the information-dissemination business for 6,000 years. For you, this Internet thing is just one more format to master."
Serving the community by evaluating and organizing the wealth of information available on the Internet is the key to staying relevant in this new medium, Teren emphasized. "Whether it is print or online, the value of perspective and understanding can not be underestimated. The key is to go out there each day and prove our value to the constituencies we serve."
Many in the audience found Teren's remarks perceptive and enlightening. "I found Marc Teren's business approach to information access, his emphasis on the need to identify the customer, in the case of public libraries, the needs of the community, enlightening," said one anonymous staff member on a Staff Day evaluation form.
The head of the Library's new Information Central service, which provides research services to Fairfax County government staff, saw Teren's remarks on the future of libraries and librarians as reassuring. "He effectively linked librarians and journalists, seeing each as a ‘knowledge portal' in an expanding world of information," MaryAnn Sheehan explained.
Training Coordinator Fran Millhouser agreed. "He broadened my perspectives on what information services libraries can provide. If the Post can partner with Encyclopedia Britannica to provide in-depth information to online newspaper readers, libraries can continue to explore the many information partnerships the Internet can provide."
Teren's final words mirrored both libraries and newspapers' need to seek creative approaches to preserve our expertise in an electronic era. "Every day that we spend defining our craft for this new medium, we carve a bigger place for it in the New World order . . . What we face each day isn't easy. We must reinvent our institutions for the future so that our children and our children's children can reap the reward of their continued existence. Ours is important work. We must stay focused, stay true, and know that we are not alone."Pat Banks is Staff Writer in the Public Information Office of the Fairfax County Public Library.
Caption 1: Marc Teren addresses the Fairfax County Public Library staff on the common future of libraries and the news media in the electronic era. Caption 2: Fairfax County Library Board and Foundation Board members listen to remarks by Marc Teren, president and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, at the Library's Staff Day,