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IFLANET home - International Federation of Library 
Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 134-88-E
Division Number: II.
Professional Group: Division of Special Libraries Open Forum
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 88.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

What's Special About Special Libraries?

David R. Bender
Special Libraries Association (SLA)
Washington DC, USA


So what is so "special" about a special library? Is it in a physical spatial plan or high-tech product in which information is stored? Is it the data that is translated into specialized information, from which knowledge comes? Is it the information professionals who gather, evaluate, analyze and disseminate specialized information? All of these things make a special library what it is -- a vital component to any organization's competitive edge.


Since I have been selected to be the first presenter this morning, I am assuming that everyone thinks that the Special Libraries Association should have a pretty good idea about what is so special about a special library. I aim to please, and I hope not to disappoint you.

So what is so "special" about a special library? Is it in a physical spatial plan or high-tech product in which information is stored? Is it the data that is translated into specialized information, from which knowledge comes? Is it the information professionals who gather, evaluate, analyze and disseminate specialized information? Well....YES

Knowledge is power. Today, successful companies have something in common; they are able to capitalize on timely information to gain a market advantage. How do these companies ensure they have the knowledge they need to make strategic decisions? They rely on a well-funded, well-staffed special library to give them this information edge.

Technology advancements over the past ten years have streamlined the typical organization in a number of ways. Positions, and sometimes entire departments, have been eliminated, phased out by automation. And as increased information technologies make information access easier for every staff member, many companies are calling for the end of their corporate library.

However, as information becomes more critical and exposure more dense, these special libraries offer the atmosphere and resources necessary to maximize technology for success. We are finding that special libraries come in a variety of shapes, sizes, compositions and play as many varieties of roles within an organization. Their titles vary as well: "information resource center", "electronic scriptorium", "corporate intelligence center", "information exchange center" -- whichever way you cut it, the facility is a special library.

In the same vein, our members are being "branded" as: librarians, information professionals, intelligence specialists, knowledge managers, knowledge workers, information resource specialists, and some carry titles like a member of ours in Boston Massachusetts, who is senior vice president of corporate information! Some serious expectations follow a title like that!

Speaking of expectations, the results expected of today's special library vary to some degree depending on the company and industry. Information expectations can effect not only the responsibilities of the library and its staff, but also the physical, spatial design of the library. Many organizations are now calling their information resource centers "virtual" libraries, as most of the housed resources are devoted to online searches. Non-librarian users have learned not to expect an antiquated data warehouse. These libraries are sleek and modern, to model the technology contained within.

The role of the special librarian has evolved to meet the demands of this technological workplace. He or she no longer stacks shelves and archives company information. Today's information professionals are technologically savvy and use the latest information technology to proactively gather, analyze and disseminate knowledge for strategic decision-making.

With so much information available in so many different forms, companies need an information professional just to sort out what's good and what's bad. One could get lost on the Internet looking for reliable data. Easy access to information does not qualify that information.

To this end, special librarians are able to provide users with honest, valuable knowledge, because they understand their companies' business perspective and can track data through a variety of sources, both print and online, to find the knowledge that will affect their companies' strategic direction.

As information plays an evermore pivotal role as a commodity, private companies, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations, and professional associations rely more on the speed and expertise of the information professionals in their special libraries to find and give value to the important information they require.

Special librarians are dynamic and change-oriented information professionals. Given the rapid social, technological and workplace transformations taking place, special librarians are finding themselves evolving to function in a variety of environments. Their mission is to produce a constant flow of value-added, customized information services. This is special.

These information experts are becoming recognized as a valuable part of knowledge-based organizations. They are able to find the best resources for information, then organize, package, and deliver information in a way that maximizes its usefulness. In addition, special librarians are contributing to the development of information policies, marketing, and use of information products.

Last year, SLA and several of its members, worked together to produce a document entitled: "Competencies for the Special Librarian for the 21st Century." This piece outlines the critical competencies for special librarians to develop in order to succeed in the Information Age and act as agents of change into the new millennium.

These competencies take into account the shifts taking place in the field, including the transition from paper to electronic media, the increasing demand for accountability, and the new settings in which special librarians work.

New special librarians, as well as practicing information professionals, must constantly build their knowledge and skills to keep up with these shifts. To successfully accomplish these new functions, competencies that encompass knowledge, understanding, skill, and attitude must be nurtured and harnessed.

Today's special librarian must possess a knowledge of myriad information resources, specialized subject areas, and the technology used for acquiring, organizing, and disseminating information.

Another crucial component is understanding the numerous uses for print and electronic information resources, the legislation regarding their use, and general business and management procedures.

Skill-sets critical to the profession, such as basic communication, teamwork, leadership, flexibility with new technology, management and research are necessary elements for success.

And do not forget -- one of the most critical elements of success is attitude. One must embody commitment to service excellence, to lifelong learning, and one must actively seek challenges, opportunities and professional alliances.

More than half of our special librarian-members are employed in small libraries with six or fewer staff, and many of these are solo librarians are moving toward becoming independent information brokers or contractors. For SLA's breed of information professionals, these evolving roles create more of a challenge in staying current with competencies and in marketing the special librarian's importance within an organization.

In order to fulfill these roles, special librarians require two types of competencies: professional and personal. Professional competencies relate the special librarian's knowledge in the areas of information resources, technology, management and research and the ability to use these areas of knowledge as a basis for providing library and information services.

Personal competencies represent a set of skills, attitudes and values that enable librarians to work efficiently; be good communicators; focus on continuing learning throughout their careers; demonstrate the value-added nature of their contributions;and survive in this competitive working world.

SLA is committed to preparing special librarians for the 21st century and beyond. We think this is special.

The evolution of the profession can be called "special" as well. Think about where the profession was 25 years ago. Think about the classic definition of the special librarian -- that the special librarian is the person who manages a special collection for special clientele with a special need.

The move began when innovative librarians decided to stop simply acquiring and shelving everything they could get their hands on. All of this in hopes of having information "just in case" someone asked for it. They dropped that notion, and moved forward with something we're all very proud of -- the now-famous "just in time" information delivery. In this move, special librarians became information consultants and information employers -- they listened to clientele describe what they needed, and then provided it "just in time."

Well, today, the information professional is moving even further ahead. Librarians are always listening to the information customers, of course, and hearing what they need, but now in addition to mediating and consulting, these professionals are analyzing, interpreting, customizing, and providing information in a way that I like to describe as "just for you" information services.

A trend we are seeing in relation to the Information Age is the next step of information service providing: "just with you." This exciting twist includes special librarians being brought in on the strategic-planning level of business. We hear of members sitting next to the decision-makers at the senior level to provide critical information in areas of crisis management, competitive business strategy and bottom-line driven decision making. This is where special librarians are going in the new millennium.

The Special Libraries Association is dedicated and committed to assist in the evolution of the profession, and we look forward to guiding our international membership into that new millennium with improved competencies, new attitudes, renewed vigor, professional growth and a place to feel and be special.


David R. Bender, Ph.D. is executive director of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), a professional organization with a membership of nearly 15,000 special librarians and information professionals from around the world, a budget of approximately $6 million, and a staff of 40.

Dr. Bender was appointed to the position in 1979 and was instrumental in the Association's move from New York City to Washington, D.C., in 1985.

He has written scores of articles for leading library publications, has authored and co-authored numerous books, and has provided consultation services to many universities, associations, and government organizations on the local, state, national, and international level.

A graduate of Kent State University with a bachelor's degree in education, he received a master of science degree in library science from Case Western Reserve University and a doctorate in curriculum and higher education administration from the Ohio State University.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the Special Libraries Association is an international association representing the interests of nearly 15,000 information professionals in 60 countries. Special librarians are information resource experts who collect, analyze, evaluate, package and disseminate information to facilitate accurate decision-making in corporate, academic, and government settings. The Association offers myriad programs and services designed to help its members serve their customers more effectively and succeed in an increasingly challenging environment of information management and technology.

SLA works to advance the leadership role of its members in putting information to work for the benefit of decision-makers in industry, government, and the profession, and to shape the destiny of the information society.