Episode 9: Caryn Baird on News Librarianship

Welcome to Season 3 of Beyond the Stacks! We’re now back to our regular schedule, with a new episode on the first day of each month.


CHERIE DIEZ | Times Tampa Bay Times News Researcher Caryn Baird Thursday January 9, 2014. CHERIE DIEZ | TimesOn this month’s episode, we hear from Caryn Baird, Senior News Researcher at the Tampa Bay Times.

She has research credit on five Pulitzers. Working alongside reporters and editors, she has helped to nail down facts, found experts to quote, provided historical context and located cell phone numbers of sources. Before her current role as a Researcher for the Times, Caryn set up microcomputers at Simmons College and built the very first webpage for Loyola University libraries.

Join us as we discuss journalism in the age of the Internet and staying curious.

Length – 25:19

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See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.



Derek: Hello and welcome to Beyond the Stacks: Innovative Careers in Library and Information Science. I’m your host, Derek Murphy, and I’m here today at Simmons College with Caryn Baird.

Caryn is a Senior News Researcher at the Tampa Bay Times. She has research credit on five Pulitzers. Working alongside reporters and editors, she has helped to nail down facts, found experts to quote, provided historical context and located cell phone numbers of sources.

Hi Caryn!

Caryn: Hi.

Derek: Welcome! It’s great to meet you.

Caryn: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

Derek: First off, I wanted to start talking about your educational background, the degrees that you’ve attained.

Caryn: I graduated from New York public schools and I went to Wellesley College. I was a double major in Philosophy and Religion. I then went to pursue a Master’s in Ethics at Columbia University Union Theological Seminary, decided I was never going to be able to pass tenure, so went for a PhD in Philosophy at City University of New York, and decided I’d had a better schooling experience at Wellesley and this wasn’t for me. So I dropped out, took a year off, and was working in the public library in Falmouth when the librarian there said to me, “you should get the degree in this. You’d make a good librarian.” And I said, “there’s a library school?” And she said “Yeah, Simmons is in Boston. You should go look at it.”

So I went home and thought about it for a while and applied to Simmons College to be a microcomputer intern librarian, which meant I worked here full-time, and got the degree in my spare time. It took a year and three semesters to get it and I was graduated by August of 1991.

At the time I was hired, we were still putting telephones in the couplers to dial into dial-up to get access to databases. And I arrived the same day the ProQuest work stations arrived, which were all the ProQuest magazines on CD-ROM. There was an index disk you put in, and you searched for your article, and it would tell you what disk to put in that had the article on it. And nobody in the library really knew how to use it. So I arrived and it arrived the same day, so I sat down and read a lot of manuals and began the first microcomputer area of research for the students to use instead of the librarians.

Derek: Nice!

Caryn: I also ran the computer labs in the library school. Macintosh on one side, and portable Compaqs with amber screens on the other. I’m dating myself with that, amber screens… So, Daphne Harrington actually was the one who first put my hand on a mouse to use a computer. I spent almost two years here running the computer labs as well.

Derek: That’s awesome. While you were a student?

Caryn: While I was attending school. I also worked as a reference librarian at Wheelock College on the weekends to make ends meet. (laughs) And I worked at the Boston Public Library in the interlibrary loan office to make ends meet.

Derek: Oh man! Yeah, so you know Boston! That’s cool. You mentioned that a staff member at the library you worked at recommended Simmons to you, and I wanted to talk more about how you chose to get your Master’s in Library Science, and what you envisioned for your career afterward.

Caryn: Well, at one point my mom was equally frustrated after having graduated from a school like Wellesley and having… I was working at a liquor store and in the public library and not doing much with that Wellesley degree and my mom got annoyed and said, “go get that degree and become a librarian like that lady said!” So I didn’t have much thought in this. My mom kind of insisted I go get a real job instead of being a philosopher with a part time job.

So I came to Simmons. I applied really on a whim to that internship, and Artemis Kirk, who was director of libraries at the time, interviewed me, liked me, and gave me a chance. I didn’t really envision what it would look like. I just knew it was better than being an unemployed philosopher.

Derek: (laughs) Yeah, I feel you. My thought process coming here for quite a while was very similar. So, while you were there, in school, what were some of the coolest things you were able to work on? You mentioned the microcomputers. Being able to set that up sounds pretty neat.

Caryn: Well, I applied to be microcomputer intern librarian, as I said, without ever having touched a computer. So probably the most exciting thing I did was read every manual in the house. (laughs) All the answers to all your computer questions are in that big thick book that nobody wants to read. So if you’re the person people are gonna come to for the answers, you kinda have to know what’s in that book.

Derek: Totally.

Caryn: So probably the coolest thing I learned was computers. I mean, they were kind of new. It was not that new, but it was kind of new still. I got here in 1989. The Internet hadn’t been born yet. So I sort of grew into the computer field as computers grew around us. But I also got to get in on the ground level. I could do DOS commands at the C prompt. I could get rid of the graphical user interface to actually get to the backbone. So one of the coolest things I learned here was the undergirding of the computer systems. So when your pretty front face with your mouse fails, you know how to get behind the scenes to the coding.

Derek: Yeah, definitely. That’s awesome. So you were doing all this command line computing there.

Caryn: Yes. And actually when I went to Loyola… I was hired to work at Loyola University Chicago as a reference librarian. Just before I graduated here. I was hired in July and I got the degree at the end of August. And I got there, and they had hired me to be the mainframe computer librarian.

Derek: Wow!

Caryn: Now after being the microcomputer librarian, working with people using computers, I discovered I didn’t like working with just machines alone. And in about three months at Loyola, I asked to be moved to the reference desk, because I did prefer to be working with people and computers. So I again became the microcomputer librarian there.

That grew into being the webmaster. I wrote the first webpage for Loyola University libraries and had to learn a lot of Unix and a lot of Novell server stuff. That was all pre-internet, so nobody uses that stuff anymore. (laughs)

Derek: (laughs) It changes fast. That’s very neat. You took up all these technical skills so quickly as a student, huh?

Caryn: Um… Fear is a good motivator. And if your job’s on the line, you learn it! (laughs)

Derek: (laughs) That is very true. So now that you are working in journalism… I’m very interested in this and in tackling what you do now. So, could you tell us about your current position?

Caryn: Sure. First I’ll tell you how I got it, cuz that’s also kind of interesting. I was hired to replace a retiring librarian at University of North Florida. She had been there the entire thirteen years that new library had been open. But when I got there, she hadn’t left yet. Which means that there was nothing for me to do. So I noticed in the basement of their building there was a room with tons of books that nobody went into, and I asked them, “what is that?” And they said that all the books they’d ever withdrawn from the collection were there. They’d never done anything with it.

So out of boredom, I offered to run their book sale for them and get rid of them.

Derek: Good idea.

Caryn: So I distributed the books all over the place, sold some… And the last day of the sale, I was making a donation to the public library, a woman behind me facing the other way said under her breath, “the person running this book sale is wasted talent here.” And I whipped around and I said, “that’s me! Where should I go?” And she said, “the Tampa Bay Times,” (at the time it was the St. Petersburg Times), “the St. Petersburg Times is looking for a librarian. You should apply!”

That was November 9th, and by December 9th that year, I had a job at the St. Petersburg times. I promptly left Jacksonville, glad to see the back of it, and arrived at the paradise that is St. Petersburg, Florida. Her name was Laura Soto-Barra. She was the librarian at NPR at the time in Jacksonville. She’s in Buffalo I think now, but thank you Laura, for my job!

Derek: What a chance meeting! That’s amazing.

Caryn: It was totally fortuitous! I’ve been at the paper for seventeen years ever since.

Derek: That’s fantastic. I actually know that area pretty well. I know St. Petersburg well.

Caryn: It’s beautiful.

Derek: Yeah, I love St. Pete. The Dali Museum there, that’s my favorite spot.

Caryn: It’s magnificent. It’s new too, they just added an extension, you should come down and see.

Derek: Yeah, I saw it! It’s great. I’m from Sarasota, myself.

Caryn: Ah, so you know the area.

Derek: Yeah. Ok, so after that got you into the Tampa Bay Times. And what have you been doing there since then?

Caryn: Back in the old days, the librarians would take every single newspaper, cut out each article, write subject headings on it, put it in envelopes, and shelve it. And that was our archive.

In 1987, the reporters started typing directly into a computer. We began indexing that way. So from 1987 back to 1912, I have a paper archive library. So when people ask me for the history of the Festival of States Parade, partially I look from ’87 forward on the computer, but I also go into our paper archives and pull out the clip pack that says “Parades: Florida: Festival of States Parade” and read the clips to give them some background. This year a clown got away from them. Next year a school bus ran off a cliff. But they can get some history about the parade to feed into today’s story.

When I first arrived there, we had not scanned anything on the internet yet. Google has since come through and digitized some of our paper clips. But in that time, only the librarians were allowed to go into the paper clips and retrieve stuff so we could file them back where we could retrieve them in the future. So when reporters are given stories about historical events, we look in the past.

When they’re asked questions about today’s news, we look in peoples’ paper trails. The media has access to public records in Florida. Public records in Florida are extremely open. Florida and Texas are the most open in the country. You could shoot your mother between the eyes in New York State and I can’t see that on a criminal record. Criminal records are not public in New York. The fact you were an inmate in New York shows. So if you shot your mother and went to prison, I could see you were in prison. But if you got off, I can’t see that arrest ever happened.

So my job is then to search the newspaper stories of the time to see if you shot your mother but nothing came of it. So if you moved to Florida and decide to run for Senate, we could say, “hey! He tried to shoot his mother in 1978!”

Derek: That’s useful knowledge, yeah.

Caryn: So in some ways we are essentially private investigators for the reporters as they gather the news of the day. They’re told the story, we make sure the data supports the story they were told. We spend about 20-25 thousand dollars a month accessing data in our department. It costs $15 to run your driving history. It costs $24 to run your criminal record. The Accurint report’s about $7 per name. If I have to request verification with college degree that costs money.

So we will create a dossier on a famous person or anyone running for public office. We background. You don’t want a sex offender as your elected official unless you KNOW about that. You don’t want to elect a person unless you know their history, and then you can at least be informed about it.

We publish the truth. What happens in a newspaper never goes away. What we wrote in 1950 can still be found and you can still sue us. The other unspoken part of my job is to keep us out of court. We publish the truth. What you saw on TV two years ago you can’t necessarily retrieve. These papers are the diary of a city and they never go away.

So. When I help contribute to a story I have a tagline at the bottom that says “Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.” When my data changes the story, the reporters will give me a byline as well. I have a tagline on five Pulitzers. The reporters did the hard work of talking to the mother of a feral child. I did the data, finding history of feral children. Finding the court records of the child while she was in the system. Finding the arrest record of the mother. Finding the cop who was first on the scene who talked about the roaches in the freezer. Finding the property owner where the crime took place. And finding cell numbers.

Now cell numbers are not allowed to be served in a directory still, it’s illegal. It costs people minutes to get calls. But every time you write your cell phone number down on applications or in your filing for the Division of Corporations, your cell phone number ends up there. So if they ask me to find somebody’s cell number, I’ll search our basic databases, but if I know you have a business, I’ll go find your Division of Corporations filing and boom! Your cell phone number’s at the bottom.

So that’s kinda what I do. I do the legwork to help the reporters publish the truth.

Derek: Awesome. That’s so interesting!

Caryn: It’s a great job. I love my job.

Derek: It sounds like you’re part of a team of librarians there, is that right?

Caryn: Well, after the recession there’s really only two of us, but there’s far fewer reporters as well. Quite a few of the sources we use are now on the internet. We spend a lot of time training reporters on how to find themselves. The warrants databases are available. The arrest databases are available. We create a lot of in-house databases. We’ll scrape all the voter records for the state and put them in-house so we can search them differently than they provide them out there. We keep reporters aware of the public databases being served on the web.

Really, our biggest pitch to the newsroom is: if you’re searching for more than ten minutes, call your librarian. We went to school. We’re professional searchers. You’re professional reporters, we search for a living. The other analogy I give people is when you walk into a library and ask the librarian for a title, at the librarian’s back are a million books in the library and they pull the one you need. When a reporter approaches my desk and asks me for a person in the state of Florida, there are 13 million driver’s licenses in that database. I need to pull just the one to hand to him. The ability to search is what is the news reacher’s forte. I’m not good at asking the governor how he FEELS today, but I’m great at finding the governors’ out of wedlock child.

Derek: (laughs) Definitely. And that’s important stuff. So, what have been some of your most exciting experiences in your career?

Caryn: Sitting in the newsroom for 9/11 was shocking. 19 of those guys had Florida connections.

Derek: That’s right.

Caryn: I actually call Florida the drainpipe of America. (laughs) It is as far away as people can run from the rest of their problems. When a Cunanan runs around the country hurting people, he ends up on the steps of Versace’s mansion in Miami. I have to be able to track all his movements through all the other states. When those hijackers largely moved through Florida for their aeronautics training (such as it was), we had tons of people asking, “where did they stay? Who did they drink coffee with? Did they do anything in Embry-Riddle? Could you find me a contact?”

One of the things I’d like to remind the librarians out there is to use the Wayback Machine. In this case, on 9/11, the day after, they’d taken down MacDill’s page. I couldn’t find any contact numbers for people at MacDill in the CentCom (Central Command). Wayback Machine showed me yesterday, and there were all their phone numbers. So I was able to give phone numbers to people who, if they didn’t know about the Wayback Machine, would have been stuck at the “this page is offline.” So always remember if you’re frustrated with a page that isn’t there anymore, go back and look.

I have a set of bookmarks… I’m part of the speaker’s tour of the Times Bureau, so when local organizations like the VFW want to speak or come in, I’ll give a talk called “Vet Your Own Story.” I usually bring a list of about fifty bookmarks. I send out an email to the participants so they have live working bookmarks after my talk.

But on those bookmarks are all the arrest inquiry databases, all the secretary of state databases so you can find out what corporations people have owned, I have a warrant database so you can find out if there are outstanding warrants. I have links to the old newspaper archives at Google, so you can search the St. Pete Times from 1950, 1920. You wanna know when Babe Ruth drank his last beer in St. Pete? Google Archive has that for you. There’s finder databases. A lot of people don’t know that driver’s license numbers are soundex numbers based on your name. There’s several driver’s license crunch machines out there that’ll take either a driver’s license number, turn it back into the person’s name and DOB, or take a person’s DOB and name and put it into a driver’s license number so you can see if they’re driving with a valid license. So if you have a guy who just ran a stop sign and ran three kids over on a bicycle, you can quickly get a sense of the guy ought not have been behind a wheel if his driver’s license is invalid.

Some of the other skills that have been useful is wheedling. I’m a professional wheedler in some ways. If I can’t find something, I need to get on the phone and find the person who will give it to my reporter. One of the silliest questions I ever had to ask was… McDonalds or Burger King, I think it was McDonalds, invented a french fry cheeseburger. It was gross.

But the reporter asked me, how many calories are in it compared to a Happy Meal? At the time they didn’t post nutritional information anywhere and I got on a phone call with a woman at PR who really didn’t want to find out the calories in this thing for me.

Derek: Yeah, I’ll bet.

Caryn: I’ll be very honest. I didn’t really want to find out the calories in this thing, and it was a really ridiculous conversation, but my reporter needed it. So I wheedled for about twenty minutes and we discovered that there’s a lot of calories in that. It was a LOT of calories. (laughs)

Derek: I’m not surprised to hear that.

Caryn: Period, end of discussion. So we put the truth in the paper on that one. (laughs)

Derek: Oh boy, wow! That’s funny. It’s only gotten worse with fast food since then.

Caryn: Baaad. The biggest skill though is to use the telephone. If you don’t know the answer, find somebody who does. You might have to work the phone quite a bit. If it comes to that, work your way up the chain. Call that person, their boss, and then their boss’s boss. Or you could start at the top, and they magically find somebody to help you.

A lot of younger folks are texters, they’re not talkers. It’s really hard to wheedle with your thumbs. You have to talk and convince the person, we need this. We want to get your truth in the paper. If a school like Harvard doesn’t have degree verification online, call the PR office and say “it’s your school’s good name we’re trying to protect. Help us! Did they graduate from there or did they just attend for two years? We don’t care, we just want to put the truth in the paper.

Derek: Yeah. Are there any other skills that were particularly helpful in your career?

Caryn: It’s kind of weird, but retention. Every time you help somebody answer a question, you’ve heard the answer yourself as well. If it’s a slippery thought, like you have to look up the physics of an icicle killing somebody falling from the roof of a building, write it down somewhere for yourself. Because you also just learned the answer of how an icicle could kill somebody falling thirty stories.

The other thing I would suggest is a good skill is patience. If you can’t find the answer today, come back at it tomorrow. A good night’s sleep and new thoughts in your head sort of change how you approach it. You can sort of get stuck thinking one way about how you’re gonna find the answer to this.

And I’d also suggest being suspicious. Granted, I work in Florida, that makes you kinda suspicious.

Derek: (laughs) No doubt.

Caryn: But trust no one. We had a story come to us where a woman said she lost her home to her roofer. The roofer had given her things to sign and the bottom form was basically giving him her house. And the reporter came and said, “oh, this poor lady lost her home to this horrible roofer!” And I said, “well, what about her?” “Oh, that’s a grandma. She’s fine.”

Now, that’s one of my pet peeves. People use the word “grandma” as short term for “sweet little old lady that makes cookies for nice kids.”

“Grandma” just means your kid had a kid. It’s not any inference on your character. So I probably said, “well, let’s background grandma too.” Well, it turned out grandma had just gotten out of prison three years earlier for running a stolen items ring. She’d send her grandkids out across the city to steal stuff and she’d have yard sales every Saturday.

 

It changes the sympathy and the story to have the truth. A. she’s a convicted felon, and she just got taken by a convicted felon. And we could all learn stories from this, so. (laughs)

So being suspicious, trusting no one is good.

Derek: I’m curious to know, how has the way that the internet’s changed journalism affected the way you do things?

Caryn: Newspapers are very, very, very different beasts now than they were before the recession. And everyone seems to think the internet killed us. And that’s possibly true, because when you read an article on the internet, you don’t bother to look back up at the top to see what newspaper that article originated at. It’s just on the internet. Well that article was written by a newspaper’s reporter to who sent the reporter to the scene, spent money to keep him there, gather the news, bring it back, have it edited and published truthfully.

So in some ways, the internet broke our individual product away from our masthead, and you no longer know who we are. So the hardest thing that’s happened to us is the fact that our best stuff is broken away from our name.

Now, PolitiFact, which is also our baby… We won a Pulitzer in ’09 for that. I was part of the staff then at the time as well. We’re better. We branded. We franchised it. If it’s a PolitiFact thing, most people recognize PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, people hear of, but when you read a great story by Lucy Morgan you don’t automatically think “Tampa Bay Times.” So in some ways the internet has changed how reporters have to brand themselves and make sure that brand links back to the paper.

The other thing that happened is that we have a lot more fronts. Reporters used to… Well, in my day they were trained to sit down and write a story. Now they say “write a story, but make the Twitter feed, and make the Facebook link, and get a really pretty picture, cuz nobody actually clicks on the words, they click on that fancy picture you have.” So a reporter suddenly has to become a photographer, a tweeter…

It’s a lot more, the internet has sort of fractured what we do. And a lot of the ways like the music industry is fractured. We used to buy albums and run home and study the liner notes. And now you get a two-second ringtone. Musicians make more money with their two-second ringtone, you don’t even know what song that is anymore. And in some ways, newspapers have had that happen to them.

I have to be a lot more familiar with a lot more interfaces. I have to remember to go look… When I give that list of bookmarks out to my talk participants, I remind them and I remind our reporters, don’t wait until deadline to use these. Every day you wake up with twenty minutes bored. Click on one of these and run your mother’s name, run your boyfriend’s name, run your kid’s name through this and see what comes back. Run yourself as well, then you’ll know where the mistakes are. A clerk was tired on a Friday and typed in your DOB wrong, but that DOB wrong will run with your name forever. Type your name in, see where you come up!

So I tell people to be primed and ready, so when news breaks, something like a 9/11 drops, I already have my links to New York maps. I have my links to McDill. I have my links to the Wayback Machine. I know where I’m gonna go before this story hits. So partly it’s training and partly it’s reminding yourself what’s under there. I have over a thousand bookmarks. I probably have 700 passwords. And on a dime I have to say that one, that one, and that password’s gonna get me their answer. So really I have to keep myself refreshed on all of that.

So on downtimes between re-cataloguing my collection… And I do still have a collection. We have lots of reference books that were never retrospectively diverted to scanned back into the system where I don’t have a hurricane almanac from 1950 on my computer. I have to go pick up a book! Blow the dust off the top, flip to the page, find how much water gathered that day. So remember to just be up on your sources and keep fresh on what you already do, cuz tomorrow might have a different twist on it, but you still need to know what’s in there.

Derek: Yeah, you’ve got to stay current. Cool. So that’s everything that I had to ask about. Did you have anything that you wanted to add to the conversation that didn’t get brought up?

Caryn: I would just add, stay curious. Don’t get into a rut. Don’t keep going to the same web page over and over again. And if you need a way to force yourself out of a rut, change your homepage. That’ll make you have to hunt to get to the link. Cuz otherwise you’ll blindly go to the same place all the time. And I also tell everyone in my newsroom and anywhere else: Go home a different route every night. You’ll see a different city. You’ll have different things to report on.

Derek: Definitely. Yeah! I think that’s good advice for everyone. Kind of change up your experience. For sure.

Caryn: Routine dulls you.

Derek: Definitely. I agree! Yeah. I always feel like time passes more slowly when you’re having a new experience, so I feel like you get more out of life that way.

Caryn: Pay attention.

Derek: Every moment is worth more, it feels longer.

Caryn: Yeah, it does.

Derek: Cool. Well, thanks so much for coming Caryn, this was great!

Caryn: You’re welcome. It’s been a pleasure.

Derek: Awesome, have a good one.

Caryn: Thank you, you too.

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