Jill Hurst-Wahl, Assistant Professor of Practice, Syracuse University
Ruth Kneale, Systems Librarian, National Solar Observatory
This Atlas agreement is focused on special librarians. In 1909, John Cotton Dana and 26 other librarians decided that there was a need for a type of librarian who focused on special topics and interests. The event, which has become known as the “Veranda Conference,” laid the foundation for the Special Libraries Association and for the terms “special librarians” and “special libraries.” The term “special librarian” has come to define librarians and information professionals who work in a wide range of institutions and environments, including corporate, government, judicial, science, military, and academic settings. Although many special librarians work in departments that resemble “traditional” libraries providing library services, many others work as information analysts, chief information officers, researchers, trainers, records managers, social media consultants, web developers/ webmasters, and more. A study completed for the Special Libraries Association in 2008 found that its members had more than 2,000 job titles, which is a testament to the variety of positions that special librarians hold. Because of the breadth of positions, some feel that the term “special librarians” no longer applies, and so the term “information professional” is often used to describe this type of librarian. That term, however, can be used more broadly to describe many other positions where an MLS is not preferred.
What are the characteristics of a special librarian? These librarians usually have a focus on a specific area that may be broadly or narrowly defined (e.g., transportation, legal, sports, or geography) yet is outside the areas typically covered by (for example) public or general academic librarians. Some special librarians are focused not on a topic but on the needs of the parent organization. For example, a corporation might include a business or technical librarian who provides information to corporate employees for use in their work no matter what that work may be.
For many special librarians, their users aren’t just those who visit the library physically; they also interact with the library and its staff via telephone, e-mail, fax, and an increasing number of social media tools. Understanding the needs of their users—including resources, types of interaction, information-seeking skill levels, etc.—helps special librarians ensure their continued relevancy. It is important that special librarians be relevant to their users both today and in the future. Therefore, understanding user requirements is vital for their continued existence.
A special library may house physical and digital resources that will be important to its users but is trending more toward the virtual. The ability for users to access materials virtually has led special librarians to use an increasing number of digital resources that can be accessed from any location to meet their users wherever they are. An unintended result of the ability for users to share digital resources and to use library staff physically located at other locations has been the closure of some special libraries. Organizational budget tightening led some to encourage users to rely on library resources housed elsewhere. In some cases, those resources were made available through third-party companies (e.g., information brokers or independent information professionals). In some cases, although the physical library may have closed or been reallocated, the librarian was integrated into the user base so the organization didn’t lose the skill set of the special librarian.
Although special librarians will certainly continue to exist, how they operate will continue to change, possibly dramatically. Technology will continue to have a major influence on how users interact with library materials and alter user expectations. The need to be subjectfocused will continue, but there will be an even more increased need for these practitioners to work virtually, embed themselves into organizational units, and meet user requirements no matter where that user is.
How can Special Librarians Make a Difference?
Every organization is drowning in information, even those that do not feel they have enough. It has become easier for organizations to capture as well as acquire information and to do so more quickly than ever. This, however, does not mean it is useful to the organization; while they are drowning in information, they lack knowledge. Knowledge can be described as synthesized information. It is information that a person has ingested and merged with other known information and then finally put into context with that person’s specific spin. Although it can be effective to use information to build your own knowledge, most organizations do not have the time or resources to do that. Instead they need to tap into the knowledge of others.
Special librarians, whether embedded or in a separate library, can help their organizations acquire information as well as connect the organization to people who already have the needed knowledge. Organizations value those who are seen as “connectors.” Although librarians are generally seen as connecting people to information, special librarians also need to connect people to people; people who want knowledge to those who already have it. This is a skill that is not taught in library science programs, yet special librarians learn quickly that it is a skill they must have. Special librarians dive into topics that are important to their organizations, learn the resources and the people behind those resources, and then create networks that will allow them to locate the right knowledgeable expert when needed. They are, if you will, the keepers of the organizational memory net.
Why Should You be a Special Librarian?
It is while studying for a master’s degree in library science that most LIS students encounter the idea of a being a special librarian. But why would someone decide not to pursue being a school or public librarian or a general academic librarian? Consider the impact that a special librarian has. The special librarian doesn’t just impact another person, but impacts an entire organization. A special librarian provides information as well as connections to knowledgeable people who help the organization make decisions about new products, markets, inventions, directions, and more.
• Provide research to doctors that help them develop new forms of treatment
• Connect attorneys to case law that can be used in litigation
• Locate experts who can assist a company with new product development
• Help an architect uncover the history of a building before it is renovated
• Work with legal counsel to locate reasons (prior art) that a patent should not have been granted
• Help organizations ensure that they do not spend time “reinventing the wheel” (products and services that already exist)
• Connect the research of two parts of the organization that may speak different languages (e.g., engineers and scientists)
• Administer the centralized engineering database for a construction project
• Investigate (and play with!) new technologies and new applications of existing technologies to see how they can be used to benefit an organization
• Ensure that their organizations know who the movers and shakers are in their industry
1. What skills do institutions require in order to organize their knowledge? Where do those skills reside in the institution?
2. How do special libraries advance the mission of their institutions?
3. What activities occur in a special library that do not occur elsewhere in an organization?
4. Rather than being their own entities, how are organizations embedding the functionality of special libraries into their structures?
5. How do special librarians differ from other information professionals? What unique skills and values do they embody?
Haycock, K., & Sheldon, B. E. (Eds.). (2008). The portable MLIS. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Kneale, R. (2009). You don’t look like a librarian! Shattering stereotypes and creating positive new images in the Internet age. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc.
Law, D. (2009). Waiting for the (digital) barbarians. Information Outlook, 13(8), 15–18.
Special Libraries Association. (2003). Competencies for information professionals of the 21st century. Retrieved from http://www.sla.org/content/learn/members/competencies/ index.cfm
Special Libraries Association. (2009). SLA alignment portal. Retrieved from http:// www.sla.org/content/SLA/alignment/portal/index.html