Being special

Classification is something that librarians are supposed to be good at, but when it comes to classifying types of libraries there is a bit of a #FAIL. At library school I was taught that there are three main kinds of libraries: public libraries, academic libraries and ‘special’ libraries. Public libraries are well-understood, usually considered as the prime exemplar of what libraries are.  Academic libraries too are broadly familiar. I think of them mainly as libraries in universities and higher education institutions, but the term can also encompass further education libraries and perhaps school libraries too at a stretch. But who knows what ‘special libraries’ are?  It is a cop-out – a class of libraries that aren’t in one of the other classes. Miscellaneous, ‘other’, odds-and-sods. There is a sop to their vanity by calling them ‘special’, though that is a mixed compliment.  These libraries are in fact an enormous and enormously varied bag of different kinds of library.


My career has been spent in this kind of library – I think of them as the non-aligned movement of libraries, defined by what they are not as much as by what they are. Almost any statement you make about special libraries as a whole will be inaccurate.  They are workplace libraries, but not all of them. They are small libraries, except for those that are rather large. They focus on a narrow subject range, though some are broader-based. Sometimes ‘special’ is taken to be synonymous with ‘corporate’ libraries, but there are many examples in the public and charity sectors too. Special libraries include several large sub-types: medical libraries, law libraries, finance libraries, government libraries, learned society and professional libraries, charity libraries. Some of them may be more information services than libraries per se, their main focus being on delivering information to members of the public rather than building a collection. The definition of special librarians may also be stretched to include other information professionals working as information managers, though they probably would not consider themselves to be working as librarians at all.

Library Camp

Last weekend I attended the third UK Library Camp, held in the marvellous new Library of Birmingham.  I had not visited the library before, though I had heard many good things about it. It is still new and it seems to be a tourist attraction as much as a library – it was very crowded.

The Library of Birmingham – exterior

The Library of Birmingham – interior views

Library camp, or Libcamp, is now an annual tradition: an unconference for all kinds of librarian. It is a great chance to mix with library people from different backgrounds and to take part in informal discussions as part of the unconference format. I like Libcamp. I have attended each of the three UK national Libcamps and a couple of local libcamps.

The recent event started with a round of very brief introductions (very brief as there about 150 people there) and then there was a chance for each of those wanting to propose a session to make their pitch. Then at the end of that the organisers sorted out the timetable, trying to avoid clashes, and squeezing some sessions on similar topics  together. As we waited for this to be completed one of the facilitators asked for shows of hands for those from public libraries, academic libraries etc. He did not actually ask about special libraries though – as usual we got overlooked.

Special libraries

One session I went to at Libcamp was devoted to special libraries.  It was a joint proposal: in the preliminary list of session proposals one proposer asked “Am I still a librarian?” and the other described herself as a “Third sector librarian without a library” – they teamed up on the day to hold a joint session. It attracted a good crowd, including quite a few graduate trainee librarians who were interested to learn more about the sector.

I remember that my first introduction to the richness of special libraries was a visit arranged by my Library School to the library at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. This was a great collection with many rare books, including beautiful flora and collections of illustrations.  At Library School I was also introduced to an organisation called ASLIB: the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux.  ASLIB used to publish a wonderful directory of specialist libraries, and was a membership organisation supporting special libraries. Aslib still exists but has changed its name so it is no longer an acronym and it has a different remit these days. In the US there is a Special Libraries Association, and they have an active European Chapter. There are also many smaller groupings representing particular segments of the special library menagerie:

  • CHILL (Independent health libraries)
  • LIKE (Information and knowledge managers)
  • CLSI (commercial, legal and scientific)
  • NGLIS (government libraries)
  • PIPA (pharmaceutical information)
  • HLG (health libraries)
  • BIALL (law libraries)

This is just a small collection of the groups I am familiar with but I am sure there are many more. Some of them are subject based and so may include members from academic libraries too. An interesting group I have heard about recently is the Association of Pall Mall Libraries. It started out as a group of libraries serving gentlemen’s clubs but broadened to include other subscription-based libraries, so is quite diverse.

Library Camp logo

Solo / small team work

The Libcamp discussion on special libraries mentioned some of the characteristics of work in the sector.  Many special librarians are solo operators or small teams. This can lead to feelings of professional isolation. They are also very likely to be managed by someone who is not a librarian, and who probably has little knowledge of library work and trends. This presents particular challenges (no names, no packdrill). Special librarians need good influencing and self-promotion skills. Library services are often seen as easy prey when budgets are tight, so the threat of closure is ever-present.

More positively, working in a small library brings opportunities to try your hand at all kinds of tasks, and to take responsibility at an early stage in your career. This is something you do not experience so easily when you are just a small cog in a large library service. Sometimes though the small size can be frustratingly limiting, e.g. sophisticated IT support may not be so readily available.


Often special libraries are workplace libraries, meaning that you are serving the professional information needs of adults, rather than dealing with students or general reading material.  Special libraries therefore tend not to be concerned with learning materials (though of course workplace learning is all the rage nowadays) nor with fiction or books aimed at the mass market.

One person in the session mentioned something that, for me, is a defining characteristic of special libraries: you are serving a well-defined group of people (members of the organisation).  I can remember thinking this back when I was at library school – serving a defined set of people seemed like an easier task than trying to serve the whole population of a city, say, as a public library service must do. A key aspect of work in the special library sector is the need to gain a really good understanding of the needs of that set of users, putting yourself as close as possible to them.


Interestingly, the following session at Libcamp that I attended was devoted to embedded librarianship. This refers to the notion that, particularly in academic libraries, librarians should rethink their location and get closer to users, or as the Embedded Librarian blog has it:

the trend of moving librarians out of libraries, both physically and organizationally, is growing, can be of great value to the organization, and can be very rewarding to the librarian — if done well.

It seems to be a new trend, though it has antecedents in e.g. clinical librarianship and of course in special libraries, where librarians are partially embedded to begin with. There is a growing literature about embedded librarianship, including a big report on Models of Embedded Librarianship sponsored by the Special Libraries Association a few years back. About the same time the Association of Research Libraries put out a special issue of their journal, on report on Transforming Liaison Roles in Research Libraries

At the LibCamp session we heard from a librarian working in a specialist school of a university who has ‘gone native’. She identifies strongly with the school and is involved in teaching and research duties there to the extent that she has withdrawn from most duties in the central University library. Others had not moved so far in that direction, but came up with various ideas for getting closer to their users, like “pop-up libraries”, tailored current awareness searches and just simply being nosey.

More generally I think embedding is a response by those academic libraries which serve large populations of researchers to the perception that researchers are ignoring library services. Only by getting closer to researchers, and effectively becoming part of their teams, can librarians have a hope of catching any business from them. This seems more feasible in the USA, where academic librarians have a tradition of “scholar librarians” who know their subject (be it music, anthropology or neuroscience) and can gain the respect of researchers.

I don’t think this tradition is so strong in the UK.  My impression is that senior researchers this side of the Atlantic do not see the need for more intensive information support personnel, also sometimes called ‘informationists‘. Other embedded roles related to information processing – grant wrangling, writing papers, data curation – may be identified as useful but these are likely to be filled by those with direct research experience. I think librarians’ best chance is to identify and work with people carrying out these roles in research groups, and not to attempt to become fully embedded themselves.


About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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2 Responses to Being special

  1. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for this fascinating post, Frank. I had no idea that there was a class of libraries called ‘special’ – even though that’s the kind of library with which I’ve had most (and most useful) dealings. Befofe the internet was invented I’d often browse in the Science Reference Library, hunting for stories in new but out-of-the-way journals.

    When I was a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London I was entitled to use its library, concerning whose stock the librarians had extremely broad knowledge. I did quite a bit of research there for two or more of my books. Given that the Linnean library is stuffed full of rare and valuable material, including obscure foreign periodicals and ancient grimoires just not available elsewhere (or, if so, with difficulty), it was essential when I was looking into some of the dustier and more antique parts of the subjects I was researching.

    I guess the Linnean library is classed as ‘special’, as is, of course, the library at the Lowdley-Purring Institute here in Deringland, with its irreplaceable journals of the HMS Spaniel expedition; and the special books section in the Department of Arcane and Occult Studies at Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass., whose collections include such rarities as the Cultes des Goules by the Comte d’Erlette; the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of Von Junzt; the Sussex Fragments, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, and of course the Necronomicon of Abdul Al-Hazred.

    In fact, I guess most libraries in fiction fall into the ‘special’ category. But what of Borges’ Library of Babel, I wonder, which contains every conceivable book?

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks Henry. In truth, I suspect that most libraries do not refer to themselves as ‘special’, but prefer a narrower categorisation such as ‘learned society library’ or ‘research institute library’ that describes them more accurately.

    I have booked to go on a tour of the Linnaean Society Library next year – it sounds like a wonderful collection.

    Yes, I had some shudders of recognition when reading about the Lowdley-Purring Institute Library:

    “The Institute Library would satisfy any curator of the more austere species of nightmare”.

    There’s a few nightmares lurking in our basement store I feel sure.

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