Historical Development, philosophy, services, nature and challenges of special libraries by seun_ayotunde


The historical development, philosophy, nature, services and challenges of special libraries

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       MATRIC NO: 09/52HJ029


          TERM PAPER ON:



          DECEMBER, 2012

A library is a collection of information materials such as books, films, magazines,
maps, manuscripts, phonograph records that are carefully selected and organized
by professionals for the use of those who require the materials for information and
knowledge acquisition.

According to Issa (2003), a special library is set up by business, professional and
religious organizations with the primary purpose of serving the companies or
groups that establish it. Special libraries therefore, are unique libraries that cater
for the information needs of its parent body which can be an organization, institute
such as a research institute or even an individual. Therefore, special libraries
unlike other libraries is tailored to suit the needs of is parent body in its collections,
activities and services. A special library therefore, is obligated to identify the
needs of its parent body and fill the gap for further development of the

This term paper looks at special libraries from varying angles such as its services,
challenges, philosophy, purpose and historical development.

Historical development of special libraries

According to SLA (1991), the evolution of the special library was boosted by the
invention of printing, which inevitably introduced reading, teaching and research.
In addition to this, it added that the failure of the public library to reach everyone
irrespective of wealth, class, and social standing, resulted in two tendencies which
are: the tendency for librarians to think that collections are meant for the learned
and not for the learner and the tendency for community to think that collections are
exclusively meant for people designed to use them. The increased urge for
information coupled with the failure of the public library lead to the introduction of
library for special needs; the special library.

The further radical change in library activities, amazing growth in print, changes
demanded in library method, establishment of the Special Library Association, and
the introduction of a journal called “Special Libraries”, which has published scores
of articles over the years, have all contributed immensely to the development of the
special library, (SLA, 1991)

The formal history of special libraries started with the establishment of Special
Libraries Association (SLA) formed as far back as 1909 having its headquarters in
Alexandria, Virginia. The association started with 30 members, increased to 70 in
one year and in the next two years 125 members was present (SLA, 1991).

The SLA is a professional association for special libraries which holds conferences
discussing new ideas, it currently has 9,000 members. It is located in over 75
countries starting with the U.S.A (Wikipedia, 2011). The SLA has continued to
spread to different countries leading to the establishment of special libraries in
many countries.

The establishment of the Nigerian Library Association in 1962 started as a division
under West African Library Association (WALA) which was established in 1954.
The NLA currently has 5000 members including various special libraries in
Nigeria which are part of the eleven special interest sections currently in existence.
Some of the associations under the NLA that includes special libraries include the
National Association for Law Libraries. The establishment of the NLA is the
major driving for the special libraries in Nigeria (NLA, 2012).

   - Evolution

From the history of special libraries to the evolution of special libraries; in 1998
David Bender, the then executive director of the Special Libraries Association
(SLA), spoke at an IFLA conference about the evolution of special libraries
through the following stages:

1. Just in Case - the collection era.

2. 'Just in Time' information delivery. Where special librarians became information
consultants and information employers -- t hey listened to the clientele describe
what they needed, and then provided it 'just in time'.

3. 'Just for You' where information professionals analyze, interpret, customize and
provide information to each individual and their needs.
4. 'Just with You' where special librarians are being bought in on the strategic-
planning level of business. Bender talks about special librarians 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

Philosophy of Special Libraries

The philosophy of special libraries bases for the services offered by special
libraries. It can serve as the driving force and what guides and determines how the
special library operates and provides services to patrons.

   - Service provision

Maximum service provision is a philosophy that is peculiar to special libraries.
Maximum service provision ensures that patrons are actually satisfied with the
information provided. Librarians in special libraries take time to search through
documents, periodicals and other information sources to extract information
suitable for their clients needs; this is maximum service provision. This
philosophy is supported by the limited number of patrons the special library serves
giving librarians the opportunity to focus on specific individuals and ensure that
they      get     what     they     want,      in    good     time     of    course!
The maximum service provision philosophy gives a great deal of contrast between
special libraries and other types of libraries. For example, a patron can walk into a
special library and demand for specific information which the librarian can leave
his/her position to browse through materials and help extract that information,
librarians in academic libraries may not afford to do that due to the highly amount
of users in the library. Some patrons even have their “usual” information need
which is already known to the librarian.

   - Collections

The philosophy behind the collection of special library is to acquire, process and
organize collections of information materials that are tailored towards the overall
goal and objective of the parent organization and its users. Special libraries are
expected to provide current information to its patrons therefore it imperative that
its collections be current. Therefore, periodicals are acquired mainly due to the
philosophy that collections have to be current and up to date.

Purpose of Special Libraries

The purpose of a library in general is to satisfy the information need for individual
of its immediate community and the larger world. The special library being a type
of library inevitably shares this broad purpose. The special library was established
in its parent body to satisfy the information needs of that organization for the
acquisition of the business objective. The special library’s purpose is firstly to
serve its parent body as this determines its relevance; they are often responsible for
materials generated by an organization (Weaver, 2012). The special library is also
established to extract information only suitable to a required field of information or
based on the policies of its management unlike other libraries.

New innovations and ideas that are suitable to the activities of the parent body for a
special library is paramount to the continuous relevance of the parent body to the
society and therefore should be the library should keep its parent body abreast of
new developments. For research institutes, the continuous provision of periodicals
which are valuable sources of information for research constitutes the purpose for
special libraries. Periodicals due to their nature provide current information for
research and therefore it is the duty of the special library to provide these

However, the major purpose for the establishment of any special library is:

   - To provide for the information need of the parent organization.

   - To provide specialized services to its special patrons

   - To acquire, organize and disseminate information materials proactively.

   - To serve as a measure of standard for the organization among fierce

Others given by O’Connor (2010) are:
   - To re-invent themselves again to become closer aligned to the
     industry/businesses they are operating in.

   - To develop effective partnerships, rather than just being a service.

The purpose of special libraries will definitely vary depending on what its parent
organization expects from its existence and the activities its parent body is engaged
in which determines the field of study the special library focuses on. However, the
broad objective or purpose of the special library as mentioned earlier is to satisfy
the information needs of its immediate community and the world in general as with
every other kind of library.

Nature of Special Libraries

The nature of special libraries focuses its characteristics, qualities or attributes.
The nature of special libraries are interconnected as one quality leads to another
and then another.

   - Being Proactive

Being proactive, the special is always the first to know about a patrons information
need and make a move towards their patrons. To further emphasize the proactive
nature of special libraries, according to O’Connor (2010), special libraries are now
attempting to link the library user with the right information at the right time,
rather than being gatekeepers to knowledge they are endeavoring to empower users
and provide them with the information edge.
   - Mono-dimensional collection of information materials

According to (Bender, 1998), the association of special libraries is dedicated to
serving information professionals in their specialized information dependent
environment; this leads to the special library having monopolistic collections.
Special libraries acquire books, periodicals and electronic materials on one field of
study and most times based on the policies of its parent body or organization,
(Weaver, 2012). For example, the law library at the University of Ilorin acquires,
organizes and disseminates materials only based on or relating to law, so also are
medical libraries and research institute libraries.
   - Uniqueness of patrons

The monopolistic collection of the special library leads to it having a unique set of
user. Different fields of study exist, meaning that information people seek rests
heavily on their field of study or interest. The special library therefore, only serves
individuals with compatible interest with the library’s collection; this constitutes a
unique set of users. Patrons therefore, visit the library for different needs but are
one under a broad subject. User therefore usually consists of researchers, staff of
the organization the library is located and other potential patrons interested in field
the special library offers.

   - Limited patron base

The special library is user-driven, constant assessment of users needs is required,
(Bender, 1998). The uniqueness of users in the special library environment leads
to a limited number of patrons. Patrons served by a special library are limited in
number due to uniqueness of their interest which many other patrons aren’t
interested in. Special libraries owned by organizations are many used only staff of
that organization or researchers in an institute.

   - Location

The limited number of patrons is as a result of the location of special libraries;
which is another nature of special libraries. Special libraries are located in
organizations that usually don’t allow non-staff to use it information materials. So
also special libraries in schools are located in the particular faculty or department it
is meant to serve and is closely supervised.

   - Small Size

Special library are usually small, (Weaver, 2012). Organizations and research
institutes dedicate a limited amount of funds which will just be enough for their
information needs at the moment and do not for volumes and volumes of books
and periodicals which in turn makes the special small in size and collection as
compared to academic or public libraries. Reading spaces and offices also
provided are based on number of staff in an organization and since the special
library as limited management; offices for managers and directors are not many as
compared to other types of libraries.
   - Fragility

Special libraries also are prone budget cuts, and sometimes complete neglect as the
purchase of the collections depend on profits and special allocations by its
management. Special libraries are fragile (Weaver, 2012). Special libraries are
neglected once an urgent information needs has been met and is seen as a financial
burden in times of collection purchases and acquisition, which leads to a moribund
special library.

Services of Special Libraries

The services provided by the special library are limited due to its nature, but its
services are maximum and more detailed. Special libraries are usually situated in
organizations, research institutes and owned by individuals interested in peculiar
field of study, this makes the collection of special libraries limited to a particular
field study; ultimately its services are monopolistic. In addition to this, the
increased demand for information, special libraries have to respond to the
increased immediate needs of their patrons which widen the scope of the special
library services from traditional services to specialized ones (Bender, 1998).

   - Personal patron profiling
A special library in the delivery of services is proactive. Special libraries do not
wait for patrons; rather they approach patrons with information. This proactive
delivery of services leads the special library to implement individual profiling of
its patrons. Being able to do this effectively requires the use of non-traditional
information sources and then packaging or re-packaging that information based
upon a client's needs (Bender, 1998).
 Individual profiling is a special service offered by the special library which
requires the library to collect information about a patron such as e-mail address,
phone number, and information interest of the patron. Individual profiling is a
maximum service that underlines the proactive nature of the special library;
patrons are contacted based on their profile to inform them of the availability of
new arrivals in the library’s collection. Individual profiling requires constant
assessment of the client’s needs, which is another maximum service of special
   - Constant assessment of patron’s needs
The constant assessment of client’s needs requires observation information
materials used by the patrons which is a service that emphasizes the value of the
special library to its immediate patrons In addition to this, once seen as “value-
added services“ such as information product analysis and evaluation are now
considered basic tools (Bender, 1998).
   - Provision of special information materials

Another service offered by special libraries which goes in line with its nature is
offering collections in a particular field of study which encourages specialization.
Collections in special libraries either based on the policy of its parent body or on
the discretion of the owner are limited to information materials in a particular field
of study. These collections provide a wide array of information on a specific field
of study exposing the user quality information of that field of study. This kind of
environment encourages specialization.

   - Research services

Researchers also find the special library to be an integral part of their research
process. This is due to the fact that research which usually based on specific field
of study can easily be undertaken if quality materials that provide the various
views of authors are available. The special through its vast resources a field of
study provides excellent research services to researchers in particular field of
study. Due to monopoly of the special library’s collections, the special library can
acquire quality materials on specific field of study and serve its patrons maximally
for research and any other information needs.

   - Selective Dissemination of Information (SDI) followed by Current
     Awareness Service (CAS)

Current awareness service is offered by special libraries in an effort to reach out to
its tight scheduled patrons. This service provides patrons with information about
“new arrivals” in the library, which is a great stimulant for the “information
appetite” of the patrons. The use of Current Information Service is accompanied
with the use of Selective Dissemination of Information (SDI). SDI involves the
selection of information that suits the need or interest of a particular patron. SDI
can be done for a patron and then CAS can follow suit.
Challenges of Special Libraries

By virtue of their unique parameters, special libraries must face unique challenges
(Petch, 2012). The world has fast changing in every aspect, which has added more
challenges to different professions around the world. Special libraries are not left
out in these fast changing challenges as it is continuously confronted by
technological, informational and economic factors. Some of the challenges facing
special libraries lead to one another.

   - Lack of Professionals and stereotyping of the L.I.S profession
The library and information science profession has over the years lacked highly
trained professionals, as young adults are not interested in studying the profession
due to stereotyping. Young adults are of the opinion that librarians work only in
the library and cannot function any where else. Business organizations in addition
to the problem employ non L.I.S. professionals to handle their information needs
due to the fact that they think that librarians should only work in the library. This
compels special librarians to acquire knowledge in areas such as communications,
human resources, budgeting and finance, marketing, cost effective performance,
productivity, profitability, organizational behavior and politics, and leadership
(Bender, 1998).
Muller (2011) recommended that junior staff be assisted to attend professional
conferences and workshops that allow them to network with other colleagues in the
field and share ideas, according to him, conferences and workshops allow them to
“escape from the work environment” which avoids complacency. Attendance of
conferences and workshops would also be a great avenue for junior staff to turn
professional as various ideas shared will improve their ability, according to Holt
(2007), learning is the first duty of LIS professionals; learning is important to the
development LIS professionals to succeed the older ones.
   - Information and Communication Technology
One of the four major professional competencies outlined by the SLA is the ability
to apply information technologies and tools. Librarians in special libraries have to
adapt to new technology to ensure that their libraries remain relevant and is not left
behind in infrastructure; a challenge common to many library and information
services personnel: managing the change of evolving technologies and standards in
our field (Buchanan, 2012). In addition to this, the purchase of information
technology tools poses a challenge to special libraries especially in Africa. The
purchase and maintenance of computers and internet service is the major
challenge. Patrons however, would prefer that their information needs be provided
for online as it is easier and much faster without having to visit the four walls of
the library; this makes the special library without information technology tools to
be irrelevant in the information world (Gardner, 2005).
   - Neglect from parent organization

This leads to the challenge of neglect and ultimately lack of funds. Special
libraries around the world have experienced cuts in budgets, downsizing of staff
due to neglect from parent body and government agencies. Parent bodies of
special libraries and government agencies have the belief that there are “important”
issues which require a larger percentage of allocation of funds other than the
library. The problem of neglect leads to lack of funds. The lack of finances can be
seen as the most common challenge facing special libraries, as finances is the key
to quality collection development which satisfies the information needs of their
patrons and ultimately determines the relevance of the special libraries. Finances
are vital to the survival of the special libraries as they provide special (maximum)
services to patrons which require additional costs.

   - Invisible to decision makers

The hierarchical structure of some organizations means that research tasks are
usually delegated to juniors. For example, in a law firm setting a Partner will be
responsible for a matter, a senior associate may be acting on the matter, there will
be lawyers and below that a graduate who is expected to undertake research, and
who comes to the library for assistance. Invariably it is the junior employees of the
law firm who become the main customers/clients of the library. With libraries
conducting most of their work for the juniors, there is a danger that the library’s
work is going unnoticed by senior bodies in the organization, or those that control
the ‘purse strings’, or who are responsible for decision making.

Coping with these challenges, special libraries have to ensure they remain relevant
to their parent organizations which is another challenge. The advent of the internet
and its ability to provide unlimited and free information may devalue the special
library and its services but proper understanding of the information needs of their
parent organizations and community, the special library can satisfy special needs
that the internet being a jungle of varying types of information cannot.
Special libraries will continue to be an integral part of their parent organization, the
community and the general society, but these challenges form barriers to the
continuous relevance of the special library and will require special libraries to
“step up it’s game” to serving it’s purpose.


Haven gone through the historical development, nature, philosophy, services and
challenges of special libraries and the various opinions of other writers, one fact is
clear; the special library remains an integral part of any organization despite the
challenges highlighted above. Mapping out effective plans for collection
development, patrons’ use of information materials and specialized services
combined with implementation of plans will see the special library soar heights
and remain of constant relevance to its parent body.

In the future however, it is vital that the special library continue to adapt to the
changes occurring in the field of library and information science, not only in the
aspect of information technology but also in the introduction of better specialized
services for patrons and taking advantage of its nature and philosophy for
optimized operations.

Bender, D. 1998, “What’s Special about Special Libraries?” 64th IFLA General
Conference. August 16 – August 21, 1998, viewed 30 June 2010. Retrieved from

Buchanan, K. 2012. Change management in the Information and Referral industry.
Feliciter: Special libraries. Vol. 58(3)

Gardner, S. 2005. What students want: Generation Y and the changing function of
the academic library. Libraries and the Academy, 5(3): 405–420.

Govender, D. 2006. Telkom: Internet costs. Carte Blanche transcript, 9 April.
Retrieved from: www.informedlibrarian.com/guestForum.cfm?FILE=gf0704.html

Holt, G. 2007. May you live in interesting times? Informed Librarian Online.
April. Retrieved from

Issa, A. O. (2003). A Beginner’s Text on Librarianship. Offa: Wumi Press, 44-56

Muller, B. Challenges facing special libraries in South Africa. Gordon Institute of
Business Science, Johannesburg.

O' Connor A., Special libraries and information services, In Ferguson S., Libraries
in the Twenty-First Century: Charting Directions in Information Services, Wagga
Wagga, NSW: Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University 2007;
Chapter 4, pp. 59-72.

Petch, K. 2012. Tapes, tapes and more tapes: The CBS Virtual Library. Feliciter:
Special libraries. Vol. 58(3)

Special Library Association, 1991. Extract from: “Librarian at Large: The
selected writings of John Cotton Dana.

Special Library Association, 2011. Retrieved from

Weaver, M. 2012. What makes a library “special”? Feliciter: Special libraries.
Vol. 58(3)

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