So You Want to Be a Special Librarian?

When you started library school, did you know exactly what kind of librarian you wanted to be? Or — did you have a general idea, but you were open to other possibilities?

That’s where I was when I started at SLIS. I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a librarian, but I also figured out pretty quickly that the traditional library job market is more competitive than ever before.  I began to lean toward academic librarianship, specifically reference work, and as an English major I assumed my subject specialties would be in the humanities.

However, a combination of library school experiences in my second year – a great Special Libraries professor and mentor, student jobs and internships, and an amazing Science Reference class – have convinced me that not only are my reference skills transferable to many other jobs, but that a variety of subjects and nontraditional jobs can hold my interest. I currently have a paid internship in an academic military library, something I didn’t even know was possible when I started library school.

If you’re not really sure what special libraries are, here is a good starter definition – they are essentially libraries or information centers within corporations, private businesses, government agencies, museums, colleges, hospitals, associations and information management consulting firms (and any other institution you can think of – I have a friend who interned at a paranormal library!).

I can’t sum up an entire course worth of information on special librarianship for you, but I did want to let you know that amazing jobs in nontraditional library settings are out there, and give you a broad overview of my favorite resources.

If you are even the tiniest bit interested in a nontraditional library job, you should look into a student membership with the Special Libraries Association, or SLA — students only pay $40 for a year membership. It’s still a lot of money, but if you’re interested in going to the annual conference (as well as gaining access to all of SLA’s resources), it is WELL worth it. If your school has an SLA student group, join it. If it doesn’t – start one! Here are some of SLA’s resources I have found invaluable:

  • My SLA annual and MLW conference experiences. At SLA annual, I met librarians who worked for Target, the Department of Transportation, the European Union — you name it. I truly couldn’t believe some of these positions existed.
  • SLA First Five Years, which aims to be a resource for new librarians
  • SLA Future Ready blog
  • SLA Divisions — I’m a member of the Military Libraries Division, but as you can see there are so many to choose from! Many of the division pages contain excellent resources, some of which I have used in my reference courses, and browsing these is a great way to get to know some of the unique positions out there. Also, each of the divisions have a special dynamic and many awesome librarians to network with! In SLA, you are not alone, even if you’re a solo librarian.

However, lest you think this post is one big advertisement for SLA, here is the blog for ALA’s FAFLRT (Federal and Armed Forces) round table, as well as one of my favorite resources, the Careers in Federal Libraries Google Group.

And finally, human resources!

Since my special library experiences have come in the form of academic science and engineering, medical, and military libraries (and I will happily answer any questions about those experiences!), I asked our very own Nicole Fonsh to speak a little bit about how she came to be a research analyst:

I work in the research library at a private equity firm.  There are 7 of us and all of my co-workers have MLIS degrees.  For many this was their first job out of grad school while others have some background working in law libraries or academic libraries.  We also have a part-time intern from Simmons who works on our catalog and ad-hoc requests as necessary.  The library provides “global deal and shared resources staff in each business unit with industry, economic, and demographic research as a means to support informed investment decisions. Services also include database training, subscriptions ordering, and archiving.”

We are all called “Research Analysts” and are divided by industry coverage.  The industries range from metals & mining to healthcare.  The idea is that we are all experts in the resources in our industries that we cover.

I love my job.  Honestly.  When my internship in the library turned into a full-time opportunity last September I was apprehensive but then crazy excited.  Because I realized that what I would essentially be doing everyday was Reference.  Which I love.  I love finding answers for people and learning new things.  This is basically what I do each day.  It’s cliché, but everyday is different.  That is not to say that there aren’t times when I want to pull my hair out going “um I don’t think that information exists” but I love that it is challenging and new and different each day.  And when someone writes back “Thank you, this is exactly what I was looking for” there is a sense of accomplishment and joy that you can’t put a price on.

And the best part of it all- I didn’t even realize this was something I could do with my degree.  But it is and I find almost every day that there is some aspect of one of my classes that I get to apply to my research and searching.  And that is a great feeling.

So, do you want to be a special librarian? Here is my ultimate tip. After you have done your research about what types of positions interest you, try to find an internship in that kind of position. While it is possible to get a job based on your other library experiences (transferable skills!), having even a little bit of experience in that position will make a world of difference, especially in more difficult to obtain positions.  This is where networking can really help you, so don’t be afraid to contact special librarians! Being a member of SLA is a huge icebreaker, but there are definitely other ways to get in touch — Twitter, for example.

Do you work in a special library? Please share what you do and how you got there! Do you have any other great resources to add to our list? If you’re a student, do you have questions about special libraries, or any of our personal experiences? We’re happy to answer whatever we can, and we’ll find answers to the questions we don’t know!

23 replies

    • I’m glad I could let you know about SLA! ARLIS is probably a great group to join for that, but checking out an SLA division or chapter definitely cannot hurt. The more networking opportunities and resources you have access to, the better!


  1. Great post Lauren!

    I’m a medical librarian (just one of many options in special librarianship) and I came to it entirely by accident. I planned and studied to be an academic reference librarian, but when that didn’t pan out, I took a part-time job with a former professor (the same amazing one Lauren writes about) at a hospital library. They ended up hiring me as the full time hospital librarian. Special libraries are amazing and the number of opportunities available is absolutely incredible.

    If anyone is interested in medical or health sciences librarianship, feel free to email me at lizy1285 (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m always happy to answer any questions about my job, health science librarianship, and how I got to where I am. If you don’t want to email me but want to know more, check out my posts on medical librarianship at Closed Stacks:


    • Thanks, Elizabeth!

      If anyone is interested in medical librarianship, definitely contact Elizabeth. She is a great new librarian, and a wonderful resource to learn the day to day responsibilities of a hospital/solo librarian!


  2. Thanks for this post! I was feeling very discouraged after being rejected by two entry-level library jobs today without so much as an interview, but hearing that there are library jobs even in places like Target is helping pick my spirits up. I’ll check out SLA and start thinking about looking for internships.


    • Definitely do NOT give up, Laurel – if you have any kind of library experience, especially reference experience, you qualify for many special library jobs.

      An important note that I neglected to mention – many special librarians do not have the title of “librarian” (like Nicole as research analyst). I cannot remember the Target librarian’s job title, but I remember thinking that if I heard it out of context, I never would’ve guessed she had an MLIS and was a special librarian. SLA has a list of job posts on their website, which will give you a little insight into some of the titles special librarians might have – stuff like researcher, knowledge manager, etc. But these vary from institution to institution, so again, networking is a really great advantage here because you get to learn what job title someone has, and what to look for when you begin your job search. You may even stumble upon job postings that do not list an MLIS as a requirement, but that you have the skills for, and demonstrate to the potential employer the value of having a professional librarian around!

      Good luck on your research and finding an internship! If I can assist you in some way, please let me know.


  3. Great post, Lauren! Special librarianship isn’t usually a highlighted possibly in LIS. I work for an airline, my title – “Technical Library Co ordinator”, maintaining, managing and co ordinating a collection of technical documentation for the Engineering and Maintenance department. These “technical library” jobs do not require any LIS qualifications (but I think they do!). There are challenges associated with that, but I do love the industry I work in. Very exciting and ever-changing.


  4. Thanks Lauren for the post. I have been working in a newspaper library for the past 5 years, just started my MLS program this semester. My first few days, I came to learn that a my newspaper library is very similar to a public library reference desk.


  5. This is a really helpful article. I’m curious though about the paranormal library that you mentioned your friend interned at. What was the name of this library?


    • I think curators typically have very specialized knowledge, and the position requirements depend on the type and size of the museum. For natural history and science museums, curators generally need a Ph.D. in their field. I think art museums require at least a master’s degree in the area of specialization as well. But again, these requirements definitely depend on the type and size of the museum.

      I’m not sure which library school courses are best to take, but perhaps your school also has a museum studies program that you can also take classes in.


  6. There are library jobs in museums, but most of them are in the museums library. Librarians also can play a role in cataloging museum objects. Metadata, indexing, abstracting, cataloging, taxonomy, digitization, and preservation classes could all applications in museum work. South Carolina has a double masters in public history and library science, although the focus for that degree tends to be on archives.

    Rose is right though that Museum curators generally need advanced degrees in history. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has this on the general educational back ground of Curators:
    “For employment as a curator, most museums require a master’s degree in an appropriate discipline of the museum’s specialty—art, history, or archaeology—or in museum studies. Some employers prefer a doctoral degree, particularly for curators in natural history or science museums. Earning two graduate degrees—in museum studies (museology) and a specialized subject—may give a candidate a distinct advantage in a competitive job market. In small museums, curatorial positions may be available to individuals with a bachelor’s degree. Because curators, particularly those in small museums, may have administrative and managerial responsibilities, courses in business administration, public relations, marketing, and fundraising also are recommended. For some positions, an internship of full-time museum work supplemented by courses in museum practices is needed.”


  7. What type of paranormal library? a religious library? I’m interested in special libraries because of their openness to museums and archaic information, curator and preservation issues relating to sacred text. I’m a current mlis student.


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