The appeal of special libraries

Ever since I started to think about pursuing library science as a career, I knew that I was really interested in working in a special library.  I had been visiting some for years, like the one at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Sutro Library (California State Library for genealogy) and was fascinated by their specific focuses.  Of course, I had no idea at the time that there was actually a name for this type of library!

You may be asking, “What is a special library?”  Basically, it’s any library that is not a public, academic, or school library.  They are often found under a larger organization, such as museums, law offices, corporations, nonprofits, hospitals, zoos, and aquariums, and their collections are centered around whatever their parent organization’s mission is.  So, in a genealogy library, you’ll find all sorts of resources like censuses, phone directories, and military records, local histories, and church records.

uicc16The United Irish Cultural Center library (image is my own)

Although I love and value public libraries and am intrigued by academic libraries, there are many aspects of special librarianship that appeal to me.  First and foremost, I like the diversity of the special libraries field.  They are so diverse, in fact, that it is hard to even define them.  While a library with a specialized collection is the type that I’d most like to work in, a subject-specific department of a larger public or academic library would also be great.  I love the idea of being able to focus on one general subject area and (hopefully) gain an in-depth knowledge of it in order to better help people.

Since I began library school, I’ve come across special libraries that I never knew existed, which helps keep me motivated and inspired when I’m exhausted and burnt out (which is often!).  I’ve been uncovering more local special libraries, but there are many amazing ones all across the country.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened a library and archives in 2012, and has rare concert recordings; nearly 400 archival collections, including items from icons like Jimi Hendrix; and a large book and audio collection.  The National Park libraries, from the Statue of Library National Monument to Crater Lake National Park to the Grand Canyon National Park, each have a wide variety in their collections and services to the public.  The Gemological Institute of America, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and the San Diego Zoo all have libraries.  Until recently, I never realized that there was a maritime library or a performance library near me.  This is the magic of special libraries to me – there are many of these hidden treasures, each with its own personality and offerings.

Also interesting is helping a smaller customer base, yet providing a much deeper level of service.  Several librarians I’ve met have told me that these settings can offer the chance to select and synthesize information for people, not only help lead them to information for their review.  This appeals to my love of research, which is one of the reasons I decided to pursue library science as a career, and yet still gives the chance to teach information literacy.

sfbg 2The San Francisco Botanical Gardens library (image is my own)

Of course, as with any career, there are difficulties as well.  Of everything I’ve learned about special libraries, the main challenge that keeps emerging is mere survival.  A considerable con is the need to consistently communicate their worth to the parent organization.  Having to frequently show the leadership the value of the library and a return on their investment sounds a bit disheartening, and seems like it can distract from performing everyday duties and helping people.  It can also lead to decreased morale, especially when despite best efforts, special libraries can fall victim to downsizing – even with the already very small number of staff in these libraries – and outsourcing.  Although I only recently joined the Special Libraries Association (SLA), I have already met a fair number of librarians who were downsized and figuring out their next moves.

Another challenge of working in a special library is the likelihood of being a solo librarian.  This may force special librarians to become competent in areas that other librarians may not have to learn, such as maintaining websites, collection development, reference, cataloging, and database management.  However, I also see this is a positive.  Although special librarians may have to learn these skills out of necessity, it also offers professional development opportunities and the chance to learn transferable skills.  Being able to do a variety of things and not knowing what each day will bring sounds intriguing to me.  In my current day job, I pretty much do the same thing each day or week, and there are few new challenges or ways to grow.

In my classes, the need for networking has been emphasized many times, and it seems the need is even greater in special libraries.  I’ve been lucky to have connected with a lot of people already through SLA and just by taking some initiative.  Being a solo librarian, or working with a very small staff, is intimidating.  But, being able to reach out to peers for support or to bounce ideas off of can lead to inspiration and I feel that I am slowly building that support network for when I eventually do get a library job.

performance1Museum of Performance and Design library (image is my own)

While the thought of being a solo librarian and having to constantly communicate the library’s value is daunting, there are far more pros to working in a special library than cons.  Becoming a subject specialist, learning a wide range of skills, getting to know your patrons well, and being able to provide more in-depth services are all fascinating possibilities to me and contribute to my interest in special librarianship.  Am I being idealistic?  Maybe.  But I’ve met a lot of great librarians already who have made me feel that these things are possible.

Flagg, G. (2012). New library headlines rock hall.  merican Libraries, 43(5/6), 34.

Hight, M. (2012). Greetings from America’s national park libraries. American Libraries, 44(5), 24-27.

Murray, T. E. (2013). What’s so special about special libraries? Journal of Library Administration, 53(4), 274-282. doi:10.1080/01930826.2013.865395

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (2014). Retrieved from

Special Libraries Association. (2014). About information professionals. Retrieved from


One thought on “The appeal of special libraries

  1. Pingback: 2014 in review | exbibliolibris

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