The Special Library Primer

Everything You Need to Know

What is a Special Library?

Special libraries, sometimes referred to as “information centers”, are libraries that provide specialized information resources on a particular subject, serve a specialized and limited clientele, and deliver specialized services to that clientele. Special libraries include corporate libraries, government libraries, law libraries, medical libraries, museum libraries, news libraries, and nonprofit libraries. (Wikipedia)

What do Special Librarians do?

Librarians in special libraries deliver research, technical services and administrative roles—solo librarians perform all three. They acquire and manage an organization’s information resources, which are focused on topics of special interest.

Per library expert and consultant Stephen Abram, “More and more, information professionals are embedded in their organization’s operating units and thus are familiar with the knowledge needs of their customers. Special libraries range in size from small operations administered by one person within an organization to large institutions within their own buildings and with hundreds of staff members. Information professionals who work in special libraries wear many hats. They work with specialized types of information, provide specialized information services, manage internal resources, and offer programs (e.g., competitive intelligence programs) that benefit their organizations.” (Abram, Stephen. Succeeding in the World of Special Librarianship. Vancouver, Lucidea Press. 2018. Print, eBook, PDF.)

Special Libraries and Knowledge Management

Increasingly, special librarians are asked to become “knowledge managers” and develop a strategy for capturing, describing and sharing institutional knowledge.

Per Stephen Abram, “Organizations have a hard time keeping track of, sharing, and finding certain types of knowledge…this is the practice of Knowledge Management, which leverages information that is tacit rather than explicit. Tacit knowledge, which typically lives only in people’s heads, is difficult to transfer to another person.

Often, tacit knowledge is what employees of an organization need in order to

  • perform core job requirements
  • start a new project
  • launch a new product

However, tacit knowledge is difficult to share, and frequently this valuable form of knowledge is lost when someone leaves an organization to retire or pursue other career opportunities. Special Librarians and Information professionals are well positioned to become managers of tacit knowledge.

The emergence of the institutional or corporate intranet as a private, employees-only virtual space via the desktop and mobile devices has increased the trend towards fuller information being made available in an integrated fashion to key employees and professionals. The ability to access corporate “memory” is a critical advantage [for] organizations that operate in a competitive framework or where efficient access to knowledge is a key success factor.” (Abram, Stephen. Succeeding in the World of Special Librarianship. Vancouver, Lucidea Press. 2018. Print, eBook, PDF.)

Although knowledge management is about much more than software, a robust KM program does require enabling technology. Lucidea offers unified ILS and KM functionality in SydneyEnterprise and GeniePlus, and a powerful corporate intelligence and KM solution with Inmagic Presto.

How do Special Librarians market their products and services?

It’s easy to think you don’t have to market your library—your organization has invested in you, the rest of the library staff, and in all your content and resources, so they must value it…right? But sadly, we all know stories (or have been in a story) about budget cuts, outsourcing, layoffs and that amazing piece of in-house technology that can be repurposed as your ILS or KM platform. Getting and keeping resources, and becoming integral to your organization’s success require ongoing marketing—it has to be part of your departmental strategy.

We’ve written a few blog posts that can help: Marketing Your Library: The Benefits for Special Libraries, and Library Marketing Methods. You can also learn a lot about marketing your special library from our Client Success Stories.

And by the way, the power of metrics as a tool for promoting special libraries should not be forgotten. Statistics on database and online subscription usage, trends in budgetary management, and examples of practice and departmental support are invaluable. Even metrics related to specific users can lead to more effective training on using expensive resources wisely. Run reports from an electronic resource management application like Lucidea’s LookUp Precision, and embed them in your quarterly or annual reports to your management.

How do you build a Special Library strategy?

(Q) What do special libraries have in common with sharks? (A) They have to keep moving forward!

A well-utilized, well-resourced, well-loved and sustainable special library doesn’t happen by accident. Library leaders have to develop a strategy that covers products, services, specializations (perhaps the “embedded librarian”) and technology. It also must align very closely with the mission and strategy of the organization. You will find some thought starters here, here, and here.

How are solo Special Librarians different?

Many organizations recognize the need for a special library, to provide specialized information resources and deliver specialized services—but don’t have the resources to devote to a large library and library staff. Enter the solo librarian—who must perform all the required activities involved in research, technical services and administration regardless of being just one person. Solo special librarians need to hone their project management and time management skills, and focus on networking to stay up with developments in the profession. Read our blog post on 8 Critical Skills for solo librarians.

What does success look like for Special Librarians?

Special librarians know that to ensure sustainability they must build into their strategy the principles of access, discovery, integration, independence, security, and partnership with other key functions. Today’s librarians embrace change, and even create it. They know that the path to success includes doing more with the tools they have, and the skills they’ve built. But do special librarians truly recognize success when they achieve it? Equally important, do they focus on communicating the value of their success to leadership and peers?

In an SLA Hot Topics session (part of our series on special library sustainability), we posed the question: “What Does Success Look Like?” covering topics such as:

  • What are the characteristics of a successful special library?
  • How do you know when you are successful?
  • How do you make sure others know you are successful?
  • How do you communicate the value of success?
  • What are the benefits of success?

Download our whitepaper presenting information shared during the event, combined with additional valuable insights gained from panelist interviews conducted in preparation for the discussion.

We routinely interview our clients and publish their Success Stories; you’ll be impressed and inspired when you see real world examples of the impact a great Integrated Library System delivers, and read about the many successes celebrated by special librarians in a variety of sectors and organizational types.

SydneyEnterprise Success Story:

Law firm Duane Morris uses SydneyEnterprise ILS to improve library efficiency and expand access to digital content. They rely on our SydneyEnterprise ILS to support all aspects of their work—per Library Operations Manager Russell Rokicki, “Leveraging technology is the driving force to even have an ILS; SydneyEnterprise is really our single problem-solving venue and streamlines all our back-end administration and technical services procedures—it’s an efficiency engine.”

What software do Special Librarians use?

Special librarians support activities all along the services and deliverables spectrum with software systems designed to help acquire, organize, and share internal and external information and resources. Called “integrated library systems”, (ILS), or “library automation systems” (LAS), these are ideally Web-based and vendor-hosted (“software-as-a-service, also known as SaaS) and offer traditional library functions like cataloging, acquisitions, serials along with Knowledge Management (KM) capabilities that go way beyond classic library automation capabilities. Special librarians also leverage online resource management applications to make evidence-based decisions on purchases, training, department or practice support, and marketing of underutilized yet valuable resources. Lucidea delivers best-in-class software with our flagship products, SydneyEnterprise and GeniePlus.

How do Special Librarians leverage library software?

For examples of the many ways Lucidea’s clients leverage our ILS products, please read our Client Success Stories; you’ll be impressed and inspired when you see real world examples of the impact a great Integrated Library System delivers.

SydneyEnterprise Success Story:

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) team have achieved their goal of leveraging leading edge technology to help ETS staff listen, learn and lead. ETS was among the first to see SydneyEnterprise, and among the first clients to migrate.  Key decision makers chose SydneyEnterprise for several reasons, including:

  • Enhanced information discovery
  • Single venue for administration, searching the collection, and all other library functions
  • Integration with key IT systems such as SharePoint
  • Efficiency: with minimal training, the ability to leverage logical, intuitive and sensible workflows
  • Purpose built design that follows library best practices
  • Web based reporting and other powerful tools
  • An appealing and functional interface that staff and patrons enjoy using

How do you evaluate and select an Integrated Library System/Library Automation System?

Finding the perfect ILS for your organization involves doing a lot of due diligence, and should be based on much more than a canned software demo. At Lucidea we love to work with educated clients, and we believe that long term professional relationships with mutual benefit are the best kind! We’ve put together some materials on vendor and product selection, including this blog post: 5 Ways You Can Get the Most from a Software Demo, this webinar: “Selecting an ILS: How to Find Your Perfect Match” and this eBook: Find the Perfect ILS: How to Evaluate Your Options.

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