The interesting thing about special libraries is that many of them are unique. Many are corporate and/or high-paying, but just as many can be found in not-for-profit organizations. What’s so fascinating about special libraries, why they’re so “special,” is that few are alike.
What is a special library?
According to the Special Library Association’s Association Fact Sheet,
“SLA represents information professionals who collect, analyze, evaluate, package and disseminate information to facilitate strategic decision-making. SLA's members work for corporations, private companies, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations, technical and academic institutions, museums, law firms, and medical facilities.”
Now, this seems like a broad description, but special librarianship is a broad field. As defined by the Special Libraries Association, a special library is a place where information is evaluated, analyzed, organized, packaged, and presented in a manner that “maximizes its usefulness.” Many definitions of special libraries concern themselves with where to find a special library and not particularly with defining what they do. I believe this is because, as I said before, few special librarians’ experiences are alike.
Why do they exist?
A majority of special libraries exist to supplement an existing organization by “handling [its] specialized information resources” (Molholt, p. 3). Often times they are a place where members of the parent organization turn to for very specific and very subject-specific answers (Williams). It is implicit that their queries be answered in a well-researched, fact-checked and correct package in a timely fashion. Being a special librarian requires a high level of dedication and thoroughness.
Other special libraries exist as a locus of knowledge on a particular subject. Certain libraries exist to aggregate as much information as possible on, for instance, the New York Botanical Garden (Callery). Even arts organizations like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on down to the Lansing Symphony Orchestra keep a music librarian or even a staff of them for the sole purpose of keeping track of who has what copy of which piece. Special libraries are a rather complex beast.
Is there a “type” of special library?
While the CSO hires special librarians, so do McDonald’s and GM. There is a wide variety, but we can break down special libraries in to common categories by subject matter. (This list was synthesized using a combination of resources from The Catholic University of America, the SLA and the University of South Carolina College of Library and Information Science.)
- Art Library
- Botanical Library
- Corporate Library
- Law Library
- Local History Library
- Map Library
- Medical Library
- Military Library
- Map Library
- Museum Library
- Music Library
- News Library
- Nonprofit Organization Library
- Personal Library (working for someone with an unusual amount of money and collections)
- Et cetera.
A Very Brief History of the SLA
Special libraries have been around longer than we’ve been calling them “special libraries.” This year, in fact, marks the 100-year anniversary of the SLA. The association published Special Libraries Association- The First Fifty Years back in 1959, edited by then-SLA Historian Alma Clarvoe Mitchell. One of the first things the reader is presented with in the publication is a copy of the SLA’s founding Constitution, adopted July 2, 1909 (Mitchell, p. 4).
At the 75-year anniversary, a similar publication entitled Special Libraries Association: 75 Years of Service Reflections was published. A major topic of discussion was, unsurprisingly, how computers have impacted the ability of special and one-person libraries (OPLs) to perform their duties. A number of articles allude to the profound impact the computer had on special libraries’ abilities to handle and organize a large amount of information with the limited staff that often accompanies this type of library.
It is telling that the “object” of the SLA was initially to “promote the interests” of special libraries and librarians. Over the years the SLA has evolved to become an organization through which special librarians can share resources and ideas. At this point in history, its annual operating budget stands at $5.5 million, according to the Association Fact Sheet.
Much like special libraries themselves, a special library’s work environment can vary widely. In The Corporate Library: A Collaborative Space for Innovation, Natalie Clairoux discusses her work environment as a librarian at a pharmaceutical company. She spends her days “boxing away nearly half of the bound serials in [her company’s library], in order to make space for the construction of a high-tech videoconference room,” and answering endless questions using primarily the Internet and her company’s intranet.
This is just one example, but a topic that continually cropped up during my research for this blog was the issue of librarians having to justify their existence to their parent organization, particularly in today’s economic climate. With increasingly automated systems for information retrieval and a decreasing amount of financial, librarians are finding themselves on the defensive.
At the recent SLA conference, a group of students and professors from the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park presented a paper entitled Saving Special Libraries in a Recession: Business Strategies for Survival and Success. The authors say that “one of the first places that many organizations look to make cutbacks is their own libraries.” In their survey of “survival techniques,” they found that there’s more to keeping oneself and one’s library alive during a time of cutback than doing good work.
“It is universally essential for special librarians to know the particular needs of other members of their organization, align library services with the organizational goals, and to aggressively market services to their organizations (especially the management).”
Special librarians occupy a very liminal space in the library world. They often work alone or with a very limited number of others, and they often work for an organization not run by information professionals. When they do interact with the administration, it is for a small window of time and sometimes this interaction is simply an email correspondence in which the CFO wants an answer and she wants it now. Not to seem completely doom-and-gloom on the subject, but special librarians have got to be proactive to keep their jobs intact. Joining the SLA for ideas on interacting with higher ups and for moral support is a good first step.
So why would working in a special library environment interest a person?
[As this is a blog post and not a formal academic paper, I thought including personal experience would be appropriate.]
I want to be a special librarian because of the specificity the job offers. A lot of people get doctoral degrees and learn a great deal about a given subject field, but being a librarian in a specific interest/subject area allows you to be closer to a huge collection of material on that subject. My interest in special librarianship involves film preservation. The ability to work in a motion picture museum, movie studio’s archive, 16 and 35mm film preserve or even as the librarian for a production company would be incredible. Imagine the access you’d have! Imagine what you’d get to see!
-Heidi Gustad, 2009 - 2010 SLA@WSU Secretary
If you have further questions regarding the SLA@WSU, please don’t hesitate to visit our website or leave comments with questions about our chapter.
- Association Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 24, 2009, from http://www.sla.org/content/SLA/pressroom/factsheet.cfm
- Callery, B. G. (1995). Collecting Collections: Building the Library of the New York Botanical Garden. Brittonia, 47(1), 44-56.
- Clairoux, Natalie. (2008). The Corporate Library: A Collaborative Space for Innovation. Unpublished Manuscript.
- Fletcher, Franklin, et al. (2009, June). Saving Special Libraries in a Recession: Business Strategies for Survival and Success. Paper presented at the SLA 2009 Annual Conference and Info Expo, Washington D.C.
- Mitchell, Alma Clarvoe. (1959). Special Libraries Association- Its First Fifty Years 1909-1959. Special Libraries Association: New York, NY.
- Molholt, Pat. (1984). Special Libraries Association: 75 Years of Service Reflections. Special Libraries Association: New York, NY.
- Siess, Judith A. (2006). The New OPL Sourcebook. The Information Today, Inc.: Medford, NJ.
- Szadkowski, Joseph. (2008, June 23). Library Techies: Beyond the Dewey Decimal System. The
- Washington Times. Retrieved from http://www.washingtontimes.com
- What is a Special Library?. Retrieved June 23, 2009, from http://slis.cua.edu/ihy/sp2002/generalinfo.htm
- Williams, Robert V. (2007). Special Libraries Management Handbook: The Basics. Retrieved June 24, 2009 from http://www.libsci.sc.edu/bob/class/clis724/SpecialLibrariesHandbook/INDEX.htm
One final note: The SLA is (again) considering a name change: http://slaconnections.typepad.com/executive_connections/2009/06/guest-blogger-sla-president-gloria-zamora-join-the-tribe.html