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The lack of focus is inherent, given the wide divergence in size, subject matter and type of the different special libraries and information centres - not to mention a natural unwillingness of commercial organisations to make information about their activities publicly available. But confidentiality can be preserved, and special librarians need not opt out of the powerful national and international trends towards benchmarking performance, in order to establish good practice and improve their services. In fact, given the economic and social importance of the institutions, and the importance of information to their activities, an overview of the quality of their information services may be urgently needed. If reliable, sector-wide information can be obtained from, and made available to, the managers of special libraries - and their managers - it will also prove invaluable to those who supply these sectors with services: materials and electronic resources, equipment, training and education.
In this paper I should like to suggest why the sector is difficult to come to grips with, and to describe work done in the UK over the past decade and the methodologies which have proved most effective.
A summary of the 1994 estimates is given in Table 1. Although very broad brush this gave at the time a new and valuable perspective on the relative size and activity of types of special library in the UK.
Table 1 UK Special Libraries - Sector estimates - 1994 Number of Books Current Online CD ROM units acquired periodicals databases titles accessed held Industrial/Commercial: Pharmaceuticals 166 38,000 35,000 1,780 600 Chemicals, Plastics 166 34,000 31,000 1,500 750 Energy, Metals, Mining 130 34,000 43,000 1,180 660 Manuf'g: machinery 239 44,000 33,000 1,310 1,460 Manuf'g: non-machinery 75 22,000 15,000 520 240 Banking & Finance 168 24,000 28,000 1,500 600 Legal 114 33,000 22,000 720 330 Consul'ts/Inf'n 51 8,000 6,000 360 570 providers Media 60 11,000 3,000 260 960 TOTAL 1,169 248,000 216,000 9,130 6,170 Other libraries: Government 590 442,000 220,000 930 1,450 Departments & Agencies Nat Health Serv 515 308,000 56,000 1,080 1,410 Libraries Professional 200 90,000 58,000 620 840 Societies Local government 118 41,000 17,000 520 340 Voluntary 420 124,000 60,000 760 920 Museum 60 90,000 42,000 110 500 TOTAL 1,903 1,095,000 453,000 4,020 5,460 GRAND TOTAL 3,072 1,343,000 669,000 13,150 11,630
voluntary organisations professional associations
For allocating industrial and commercial libraries to sectors, the list of codes in the 1992 Department of Trade and Industry 'Standard Industrial Classification' was used - an approach which eliminated much of the potential cross-classification related to subject. Even so, certain institutions obstinately resist easy allocation to one sector, for various reasons: the borderline between 'commercial' and 'non-commercial' becomes increasingly indistinct, as organisations which were 100% government-funded are obliged to diversify their sources of funding; in areas such as law and medicine, academic libraries are often hard to separate from special libraries, and listings often bundle them together - as, for instance, in the valuable directory produced by the British and Irish Association of Law Libraries (4); research libraries are particularly difficult to classify, and might almost warrant a separate category. One could go on at length about problems of this kind.
Once sectors are defined, it is necessary to identify all the libraries in organisations within them. This is a difficult step. Special libraries are rarely as well mapped as their academic and public counterparts. Those directories that do exist are rarely comprehensive. Directories of the organisations in these sectors tend to be more complete, but rarely give details about their libraries. Amongst the sources that have been found useful for the projects mentioned above are:
For some of these categories, the commercial nature of the parent company, and/or the confidential nature of the information held, means that access to information needs to be negotiated - sometimes with payment of a fee.
A recent paper by German colleagues (5) lamented that it was difficult to achieve returns of more than 35% in surveys of German special libraries. That experience is echoed in UK surveys. One reason for it is the difficulty of getting postal questionnaires to the right department of the organisation. The different terminologies used (library, information unit, resource centre, research, documentation centre, etc) do not help here. Telephone chasing of postal questionnaires is essential, and often establishes - if the right person can be tracked down - that the original questionnaire never reached its mark.
Of course, a questionnaire about library/information services is unlikely to be completed if the recipient organisation does not have a library. This can only be determined - if at all - by telephone chasing. In the Libraries in the workplace random survey, 14% of the 897 organisations contacted said they had no library, and the figure rose to 17% if the category included libraries which were too small to be surveyed. The full picture is shown in Table 2. Twenty-six of the 98 voluntary sector organisations contacted had no library, whilst amongst food manufacturing organisations there were 58 out of 97 - a response which suggests the need for a completely different survey about the nature of information gathering in manufacturing industries.
Table 2 Response rate
Code Sector Forms sent Response rate "No library" out - % responses 1 Govt Dept 29 58.6 0 2 Govt Non-Dept 96 45.8 2 3 Voluntary 98 26.5 26 4 Trade Assoc'ns 101 49.5 4 5 Law 90 25.6 8 6 Comm & Fin'l 99 24.2 11 7 Energy 90 36.7 7 8 Pharmac'l 97 33.0 3 9 Man & Info Cons 100 33.0 9 10 Food Manuf're 97 3.1 58 Total 897 31.8 128
Technical factors aside, there are other probable reasons for poor returns. In many special libraries there are only one or two hard-pressed members of staff, for whom the receipt of a questionnaire is not a cause for rejoicing. Libraries in commercial organisations are understandably reluctant to provide confidential information which might be of use to their competitors. (For this reason surveys should best come from outside the sector, from organisations with a reputation for not revealing sources.) Also, there is no strong tradition of benchmarking amongst special libraries - despite its prevalence in commercial organisations themselves. Perhaps, too, special librarians feel that the added value they give, by packaging or interpreting information for their users, cannot easily be addressed by a questionnaire - and on this point they are probably right.
The current Libraries in the workplace survey (RR) is restricted to ten specified special library sectors, and respondents were selected using a simple random sample, drawn from a variety of sources. The questionnaire was longer (four pages) and the initial response much lower: 150 questionnaires, or 15% of the sample - a figure which increased to 31.8% following telephone chasing (not including those organisations which reported that they had no library).
Despite these differences of approach, the results - in areas where findings were available from both surveys - were largely comparable. Where they were not, the contradictions were mainly explicable by the differences of approach. For instance, the self-selection approach of the TFPL survey (addressed to individual professionals) naturally led to responses being received from organisations where a well developed library was known to exist. The random sample of organisations in Libraries in the workplace elicited information about organisations where there was no library, or where the library/information facility was very small - and many of the findings showed correspondingly lower averages.
Another difference was the form in which quantitative information (about budgets, stock, acquisitions, etc.) was requested. The TFPL survey used a bracket approach, asking respondents to tick one of five or six boxes representing different ranges of figures. This was probably a factor in eliciting a high response - particularly in sensitive areas such as budgets. But in devising the questionnaire, it is easy to guesstimate the prompted ranges unhelpfully, both at lower levels and higher (when a prompted option of '£5,000+' can conceal figures of £5,000 or £50,000). Libraries in the workplace requested specific figures - more accurate, if they are forthcoming.
However it is gathered, quantitative information needs careful treatment at the analysis stage. The variations in responses tend to be much greater than they are in other library/information sectors, and almost every sector was characterised by a small number of very large libraries at the top end of the scale - and a consequent tendency for means to be distorted. For this reason, medians are a better indicator of the average in most instances.
Because surveys of special libraries are rare, the missing factor has been information about trends. The TFPL data, which relates to both 1994 and 1996, gives the start of a time series, and the Libraries in the workplace survey will establish a small panel of special libraries willing to provide information every year - so that some trend analysis should be possible within a few years. In the meantime, some indication of trends was obtained by questions in both surveys which asked whether budgets, staffing, acquisitions, etc. were 'increasing or decreasing'.
First, the users of special libraries are both difficult to quantify and more diverse than might be apparent. One wants to know how far library/information services are of use to the staff of the organisation (on one or more sites), but also what use is made by a variety of external users: external members (e.g. 92% of professional associations served these); external clients (82% of government departments and 75% of financial libraries served these groups); and members of the public (69% of voluntary libraries served these). Information about user groups is presented in another form in Figure:
Fig 1 Clientele
The funding bodies of special libraries are also interested in the actual numbers of regular users, in relation to the numbers targeted by the library/information services. In Libraries in the workplace, the median numbers of users targeted varied from 13,000 for professional associations to 300 for voluntary organisations. The percentage of regular library users to targeted users varied between 46% in government and 24% in professional associations.
Expenditure per regular user
User data become even more interesting when linked with other information. Figure 2 depicts average expenditure per regular user. There are clear differences between the sectors, in overall levels of expenditure and in the relative levels on the four expenditure components listed. For instance, pharmaceutical libraries are the most intensive spenders, with serials by far the largest component. Financial libraries are the next highest spenders, though in their case most expenditure goes on on-line sources. The voluntary sector is the only one where the largest expenditure element is books.
Fig 2 Average expenditure per regular user
Methods of database access
We turn now to electronic information sources, which are usually assumed to affect special libraries more, and more quickly, than other types of library service. Figure 3 shows, by sector, libraries' reports on where use of electronic media was 'increasing' or 'decreasing' most rapidly.
Fig 3 Changing methods of database access
There were some interesting features here. Internet sources were frequently mentioned as 'increasing in use', as might be expected. The use of CD-ROMs was also reported as increasing in many sectors, but in both pharmaceutical and management consultant libraries it was decreasing more than increasing. Perhaps the most interesting feature was on-line services. One might have expected on-line services to have been the main casualty of increased Internet use, and in some sectors this was the case; but amongst management consultant, financial and voluntary libraries its use was increasing more than decreasing. The message seems to be that there are no straightforward patterns for the use of information materials, and that each medium finds its own level in specific situations.
When this approach is extended to the absolute numbers of searches we also find considerable diversity between sectors. CD-ROM is generally the most popular route for searching, except in the pharmaceutical industry, where on-line hosts are more frequently used. The energy sector makes greater use of the Internet than the other sectors. Management consultants make the most use of searching techniques in general.