What the heck are Special Libraries anyways?

Like many of you, I had no idea what special libraries were when I started my MLIS program in the fall of 2019. I knew there were corporate libraries and libraries at museums and archives, but I was not aware of the vast world of special librarianship and for that matter the extensive list of possible career options for MLIS grads that are outside of traditional librarianship. As fellow HLS blogger, Lauren, so eloquently wrote about back in March 2021 in her post titled Special Librarianship doesn’t just mean special libraries – more on non-traditional LIS career paths, there are dozens of titles and roles where you can apply your MLIS skills. I highly recommend you read Lauren’s post as you embark on job searching as it will give you a solid list of titles to search for outside of “librarian.” Over the past two years, I have shifted from a desire to work in public libraries (mostly because I realized that as someone who is making a mid-career shift with no experience working in libraries, landing a position as a public librarian in Seattle is going to be challenging) to a focus on special librarianship career paths.

As a quick background, a special library is generally a non-traditional library outside of public, academic, K-12 libraries and can be found at corporations, nonprofit organizations, museums, and government agencies. Special libraries often focus on the “I” and the “S” of the MLIS degree and as mentioned above, jobs in these areas often do not have “librarian” in the title. Creation, use, workflows, knowledge organization, digital literacy, and retention of information are areas that special librarianship will take on directly.

Special libraries have been around for over 100 years and the Special Libraries Association (SLA) has roots going back to 1909 when a small group of librarians gathered in Bretton Woods, NH to discuss a new kind of librarianship they were practicing. This gathering was held in conjunction with an ALA meeting and was called by John Cotton Dana, who is officially recognized as the founder and first president of SLA. Dana championed information services that were tailored more specifically to a user group beyond the traditional library patron (Source: History of SLA).

In my opinion, this is what makes special libraries unique and interesting is their specific focus on a certain industry or particular user. These users will have a focused information need that will be met by a special librarian with the knowledge and capability to meet these specific requirements. Getting to know your user base well and showing your value as a special librarian are often key aspects of this MLIS career path (and this has been confirmed for me through conversations with many special librarians).

Get Involved & Join Your Local Association Chapters

All this being said, consider joining the national SLA and your local SLA chapter and learn about the benefits of SLA Membership. If you are a new member, click on “New Members – JOIN” and select student member dues under member categories (fee is only $10 for students!). Next, fill out the application up to the “Select Chapters, Divisions, and Caucuses” page and then click on the section titled “Communities (formerly Chapters)” and this will open up a drop-down section where available local chapters will be visible. For those in the Seattle area, select “Pacific Northwest” and you will be a member of the national and the PNW Chapter of SLA! The benefits of this membership include networking opportunities, access to seasoned special librarians in the field, and the chance to build community and learn about various career options.

Recently, I also renewed my ALA and WLA (WA Library Association) membership and got a joint discount membership as a student. Students can join the WLA for $20 or $44 with a combined WLA/ALA membership. The benefits of joining these library associations as a student are really helpful because they provide a platform for learning beyond the classroom and foster connections with information professionals in the “real world” and allow us as students to learn about issues that affect our profession. You will also have the chance to join various committees and work groups to build your resume and have access to networking opportunities that will benefit your future work life. And one of my favorite benefits is receiving a copy in the mail of American Libraries magazine!

Anyone out there have other input on special libraries or work in one now and have an experience they want to share?

By Erika Whinihan, third year online MLIS student, Information School, University of Washington (erikaw9@uw.edu)

3 replies

  1. I received my MS in Library Sciences in 2006 (it has been ages, I know) with the intent of working in a Corporate (Special) Library. I’m in Pharma and within my company there are librarians that in the business library, science library, Regulatory Affairs (cataloguing and managing records), knowledge retention / management, competitive intelligence, data analytics and market research. I’ve personally worked in Regulatory Affairs, the business library, Competitive Intelligence, and I now am a Global Market Research lead. I’m an active member of SLA and SCIP. I use my knowledge management and reference skills daily, especially in determining what the key intelligence questions are for the business and developing the surveys and discussion guides used in research.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your reply, M. Lopshire. That sounds like a really interesting and unique background and good to know that there are so many avenues to use an MLIS degree. I have not heard of SCIP, what does that stand for?

    Liked by 1 person

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