What makes a library ‘special’?

Defining Special Libraries is not as straightforward as defining public or academic libraries. The first president of SLA, John Cotton Dana, wrote that the “name Special Libraries was chosen with some hesitation, and rather in default of a better.” (in Special Libraries, 1914, p. 70-76). And it can be very puzzling.

A lot of library students don’t realize all of the information centres that can be classified as a special library (and potential workplaces).

Special libraries can include:

corporate libraries

news libraries

law libraries

government libraries

medical libraries

museum libraries

prison libraries

specialized collections

& others!

David Shumaker characterized special libraries as information centres that: specialize in a particular subject; have a specialized and limited clientele; and/or deliver specialized services to that clientele (Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, 3rd ed. p. 4966).

“The essence of the special library is its focus on the specific interests of its user population… The special library does not seek to duplicate the general information available through other accessible sources, such as local public and academic libraries.” (Encyclopedia, p. 4968)

Some aspects that make special libraries interesting are: development of a deep collection; the ability to work with the clientele towards specific (even embedded) services; and the opportunity to work with a wide range of materials and information resources.

SLA has a list of Compentencies for Information Professionals, which outlines skills necessary for working as an information professional or special librarian.

You can find more resources on our Resources page!

Don’t hesitate to leave a comment about what makes special libraries, ‘special’!


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