Poster for the 2015 film “Spotlight”
I finally watched the recent film “Spotlight” this past weekend. Great movie if you like watching a process film. Great movie if you love good journalism and watching important news stories get made. It’s all about a team of investigative reporters connecting a bunch of dots and reporting on the massive coverup of the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston area from the 1960s up the the early 2000s.
Read the actual Spotlight stories here.
The first story published by the Spotlight team about sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in Boston.
As a news librarian turned solopreneur information professional, I cheered every time the reporters visited the library, referenced old clippings, and consulted directories. I bored my wife and friend by enthusiastically pointing out the Lektriever compact file storage system by name. (They aren’t librarians). This blog by Reel Librarian has a great post about the portrayal of the Boston Globe library in the move complete with screen shots that explain all the geeky stuff.
(As an aside, I’m surprised at the lack of internet or online database searching in a newsroom in 2001. Newspaper databases like Lexis and Dow Jones had been around for over a decade at that point. Even Canada’s own Infomart launched in 1985)
As the Spotlight team decides to compile a spreadsheet using the “Massachusetts Catholic Directory” to track the roles and parishes of various priests in the Boston archdiocese looking for those out on sick leave, or absent or in treatment
I paused the film to bore my companions once again. I tell them that if that directory is now an electronic only resource – the tracking the Spotlight team performed would be impossible. Electronic directories only care about the here and now. They don’t save the historical data. My friends absorbed this information in the context of Spotlight and uncovering crimes and exposing a horrible coverup. “No way!” was the collective reaction.
The movie makes a point of showing one of the reporters at Boston Public Library searching old copies of the “Catholic Directory”. I checked BPL. They still have the old issues of the “Boston Catholic Directory”. I presume that’s the actual name for the reference book mentioned in the movie.
Screen shot of Boston Public Library catalogue for the “Boston Catholic Register”
Luckily a free resource I found on the web when looking for the “Massachusetts Catholic Directory” called “The Catholic Directory” goes to great lengths to explain how it is different from “The Official Catholic Directory”, which are printed directories and – hooray – still being published. The unofficial Catholic Directory looks like a useful resource to find a parish and priest but it only contains current information.
Here’s another illustration of what I mean and – bonus – it’s oozing Canadian content.
These are telephone directories for federal public servants working in the National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau). My old news library had printed phone books from the early 1970s to the last issue printed (2006 or 2008 – can’t quite recall).
Issues of the Government of Canada Telephone Director Ottawa-Gatineau on the shelves at the Library of Parliament.
Phone directories are terrific resources because you can search by name and browse by department. If you want trace the career of a public servant – you can. You can also see who they reported to and who they worked with.
Details of a page in the Government telephone book, circa 2005ish.
The government replaced the printed books with GEDS – the Government Employee Directory Service – about a decade ago. GEDS also allows browsing and searching but there is no historical data. Ask any investigative reporter, historian or researcher why is significant. I guarantee they will talk your ear off. Imagine a public servant in Ottawa is charged with a crime. Can you see how these old directories come in handy to figure out where they worked and who they knew.
Russell Williams leaving court.
Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 2010.
In 2010 when CFB Trenton Base Commander Russell Williams was charged with murder I raced down Wellington Street to the Library and Archives with a copy of his biography from the National Defence website. I used old city directories to cross reference against his military postings to find former neighbours. I emailed names and contact information back to the newsroom so reporters could try and track down people who may have known him. Even city directories are endangered species in the internet era. Last year I was trying to trace the whereabouts of a man in Vancouver. The Vancouver city directory went out of print about a decade ago.
Earlier this year I was very pleased that I had an opportunity to arrange for a donation of the government telephone books, some old Canadian Who’s Who directories and other resources from the Postmedia News library to the Reader’s Digest Resource Centre at Carleton University. They are now the proud owners of two titles that I used all the time for backgrounding federal political issues. One is the Canadian News Facts. This is an annual binder of news summaries published from 1968 to 2001. It had good indexing and a chronological layout. It was fast and easy to use.
Source: My 2015 photo. Postmedia News Library.
The second set is the Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs. The set includes volumes from the 1960s to mid 1980s. These are in longer chapter format but if you needed to understand the context of a particular sitting of Parliament, or what the top issues were in a given year, they are an excellent resource.
Canadian Annual Review of Politics. A few issues photographed at Postmedia News in 2015.
Have I made my point? These old printed directories, phone books and compilations are gems and don’t always have digital equivalents.