Special Librarianship: A Brief Survival Guide

Special Librarianship

By John Connolly

Special libraries are the unsung wing of the library field and face many challenges for many reasons. Special libraries are difficult to categorize easily, as the collections and missions that they have are widely diverse. Special libraries can be found in law firms, medical facilities, museums, military facilities, and corporate offices, among many others. Stepping into a role in a special library can be very rewarding, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Here are a few pointers to help get you started, drawing on my five years of experience as the Head Librarian for a museum library.

Embed Yourself in the Broader Organization

Special libraries are great assets to their organizations because they are often laser-focused on the needs of the organization’s members. The library mission is the same as at a public or academic library: connect the patron with the resources that they need. However, the needs of the organization members are likely to be sophisticated, challenging, and specialized. The more you can understand the mission, processes, and resources of the organization, the better you will be able to serve the patrons of the special library.

Be Prepared to be Unprepared

Working at a special library is theoretically similar to other library contexts, but the reality can be very different. The broader library field has a distinct culture that might not be compatible with a broader corporate culture in which the special library operates. The expectations and pace of operations are likely to be very different than other library types, and time management skills will likely be of high importance.

Library school rarely prepares you for some of the situations you may encounter in special libraries. While some skills (such as conducting a solid reference interview) might help you, it’s very likely that new situations will arise for which you never trained. At my special library, I was expected to regularly perform book talks for high-level donors, a new experience that tested my public speaking abilities as well as my familiarity with our collections. If you keep an open mind and approach situations as learning opportunities, they can serve you very well in acquiring new skills.

Do More with Less

When I first worked in a special library, it was immediately obvious that a “librarian’s touch” was sorely needed to help maintain and provide access to the collection. Over the course of the next few years, we embarked on many special projects to improve access to the collection, but a tiny budget and limited staffing presented continuous challenges throughout the life of these projects. Special libraries are excellent schools of resourcefulness and creativity for enterprising library workers. An entrepreneurial attitude and creative bent are tremendous assets in an environment that moves rapidly, needs results immediately, and may not have extra budget for library improvements or staffing.

One of the big reasons you might have to do more with less in a special library is that staffing may be limited. Possibly even limited to one person: the librarian. This can be intimidating and overwhelming, but there’s a silver lining. With fewer barriers between you and the work to be done often comes great flexibility in how the work gets done. Exploration of new, creative ways of pursuing work can be tried. If you can establish yourself and face the daily challenge of balancing your resources, it can be a very powerful experience to develop and bring to fruition strategies that improve the library and the broader organization.

Specialize to Generalize

Special libraries often require a lot of specialized knowledge. A great deal of special library positions will require additional training or education beyond library experience or credentials. The specialized knowledge you bring to the table is likely a requisite toolset to help you embed yourself in the mission and focus of the broader organization. Nevertheless, the true power for the special librarian is in generalization, abstraction, and communication skills. Special libraries will have many opportunities to interact with other parts of the organization, and the ability to connect the dots between traditional library services and what the library can do to enhance the work of another department is of critical importance. The importance of understanding the broader position and strategy of the organization can’t be overstated.

Be Your Own Advocate

I strongly believe this to be the case for every library worker, but it goes double for the special library: if you don’t advocate for yourself and your library, who else will? You’ll need to make your case to the broader organization. A grasp of budgets, organizational directions and mandates, general strategy, and environmental opportunities will all be necessary to advocate for the library as a resource. Justifying the resources and proving the value of the library are just as critical for the special library as public or academic libraries. Strong interpersonal and interdepartmental links will go a long way in this regard. Many larger organizations with special libraries don’t have a broader knowledge that the library exists, much less what it can do for them.

A passive approach to this issue will ensure this problem persists. If you work at a special library, expect to be proactive in marketing your services and following up with solid statistics to prove your worth.

Not everybody is cut out for life in a special library, but there are tremendous opportunities for just one person to make a difference in them. If you are a strategic thinker, an independent self-starter, and enjoy getting in front of people to advocate for libraries, special libraries might be an excellent fit.

John Connolly is a librarian and manager in a public library in the eastern United States. He spent six years as the Head Librarian at a special research and museum library, and hosts our Vertical Files podcasts.

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