To continue our exploration of different types of libraries, we’re going to look now at special libraries.
Special library is a broad term that in practice gathers up all the libraries that don’t fit into other categories. They are not public or national libraries, and they’re not school or university libraries. The term usually refers to libraries that are established to serve a particular group of people and may be limited to a particular topic – but this is a very broad definition!
Most corporate libraries are considered special libraries. This includes libraries and information centres within law firms, pharmaceutical companies, engineering companies, financial institutions, etc. These libraries may not look like traditional libraries. They often don’t have a dedicated space, they may not have many or any print resources, and they may not be called a library. But where a service exists to provide information to support the work of the company, a special library exists. The Special Library Association focuses on representing people who work in these environments.
There are many special libraries other than corporate libraries. Hospital libraries are usually considered a kind of special library, as are libraries at museums and art galleries. Several non-government organisations have libraries that provide information and resources to the staff of the organisation as well as the public. There are military libraries and association libraries.
Working in a special library can be quite a different experience. Most (but not all) special libraries are small, so staff are usually generalists (they do everything) rather than specialists (such as cataloguers or reference librarians). A limited client base can mean developing longer and deeper professional relationships, and working in-depth on research projects. Working in a special library usually requires developing some kind of subject-based expertise, such as law or medicine – for this reason, special libraries often recruit staff that have subject-based qualifications. Some special libraries are very small, and run by just one person – these are sometimes called OPLs (One Person Libraries). Can you imagine running a library all by yourself?
Special libraries usually exist underneath a parent body, such as the hospital or the company or the charity. Their funding usually comes from this parent body, which means that the library’s funding is often reliant on proving their worth to their parent body. This might be through demonstrating improved patient outcomes, or providing competitive intelligence, or by providing a public information service that achieves an organisation’s advocacy and education goals. Sometimes this ‘worth’ can be difficult to quantify.
There is huge variety in how a special library looks. As stated above, it may not look like anything – it may be an entirely online service. Or it may be one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
Do you work in a special library? What do you think is different about working in a special library? What do you think would be most difficult about working in a special library?