Why Special Libraries are Important Destinations



April 24, 2018

There is a great deal of emphasis on “the virtual library” and the substitution of digital resources for print, but the allure of the library as a destination persists, most especially in the public sector. However, many of the reasons that public libraries attract visitors apply to special libraries as well.

A recent article in Maclean’s, “How public libraries are reinventing themselves for the 21st century,” posits that “ today’s public library is about access to technology as much as to knowledge.”

Author Brian Bethune writes, “If there was one major player in the past century’s information ecosystem that observers thought would likely be driven into extinction by the new millennium’s digital revolution, it was the public library. Instead, … librarians have, with remarkable adroitness, turned their institutions into a key bridge over what they call the “digital divide” and an essential community hub (italics ours) in modern urban settings.”

He quotes Asa Kachan, chief librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries, who states in reference to technology and all-things-digital, “… libraries now lend out the means as much as the ends, and we support the learning.” In this case, the “means” refers to a portfolio of technology tools that offer access to digital content and enable many online tasks. Toronto City Librarian Vickery Bowles terms this realm of library service “digital inclusion,” and it’s the impetus behind providing 3D printers, coding classes, free WiFI even when the libraries are closed, and loaner laptops.

These technology tools—and the instructors who train others in their use—are available within the walls of many public libraries. They are also available within the walls of special libraries.

These days, special libraries certainly offer “access to technology as much as to knowledge,” and a physical space where that happens remains desirable. Sure, special librarians can leverage remote log in apps to guide users through intranet resources or offer completely virtual reference desk service—but meeting in person for five minutes whenever possible speeds up understanding, builds professional relationships and leaves a great impression. Tangible (e.g., print, face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice in a pinch) and digital service lines and resources are not “either-or”.

In addition to being technology powerhouses, special libraries as destinations—rather than exclusively virtual services—share a number of characteristics with brick and mortar public and academic libraries. Special libraries too are places where:

  • Help can always be found
  • People pursue common interests
  • Learning (in all its variety) is paramount
  • Patrons are welcomed
  • People can get away from their desks and focus, uninterrupted

Your user community is your organization’s workforce. How will you ensure that your special library continues to be an “essential community hub”?

The ultimate “library as destination” just may well be British Prime Minister William Gladstone’s personal collection, which has a residential wing with 25 hotel rooms. Of course, we’re not suggesting that special libraries should go quite that far!

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