This post is about special libraries. It's the library sector where I am currently working. For this reason, it is dear to my heart. Like any type of job, it has its good points and bad points, but I think that the work is important and interesting.
"Special library" is an unusual term, at least I thought so when I first heard it. Let's begin by exploring what this term means.
My definition is that a "special library" is a library which exists to serve a specific organisation.
Special libraries exist in both private sector and public sector organisations.
Special libraries usually have one or more subject specialisations, depending on the needs of their organisation. It could be law or business research or finance or music or news media or anything else imaginable.
It is difficult to generalise about special libraries. They can be extremely small, but that's not an essential quality - I've known of special libraries with significant space, staffing and budget.
This makes comparisons and benchmarking difficult, but that doesn't prevent us from trying to do this.
A lot of special libraries have a fundamental uniqueness, a uniqueness which flows from the distinctiveness of each library's client organisation. For instance, to use a random and fictional example, there is only one Commonwealth Department of Administrative Services in Australia. The library at the Department of Administrative Services would be unique because it exists for that unique organisation. A similar thing would apply for the corporate library at the Acme Widget company.
But moving on from this -
Another way of looking at this is that boundaries which separate special libraries from the rest of their client organisation are thinner in special libraries.
Providing a library service is a part of a special library's function, but a special library may also need to do something else. This is not an absolute - in much of my work, I am working within the traditional librarian / client boundaries. But sometimes I am not, and to fulfil Rule 1 (of serving my organisation), I allow myself to be co-opted to work on a project or matter more actively.
Reasonable people have argued with me that this is a bad idea when there are limited resources. That the line areas of our organisation have more resources for this kind of research than we do. If the library staff are always being co-opted for non-library work, then the library's core services will suffer and the people who rely on those services will be worse off.
I can see that point, but also think that this isn't an all or nothing issue.
The worst thing about working in a special library is that our jobs can be vulnerable. When an organisation experiences budgetary challenges, we are often hit - early and hard. In this situation, I think it's foolish for librarians to have a rigid and unhelpful "computer says no" attitude about how we can help our organisation. Instead, I want to be jumping around and getting into peoples' faces - not in an annoying or spammy way - but demonstrating again and again that we know how to get the good stuff and they're flying blind without us.
I think that librarians have a unique skill set and we can do amazing things, especially if we deploy the magic combination of librarian skills, a library's information resources and subject expertise. Amongst librarians, we can talk about how great we are as much as we like. But if we want to convince the people of our organisation, in a time when many people think that libraries may be dead or dying, and express surprise that there still are libraries around, this is when we need to show, not tell. We need deeds - getting our hands dirty and helping our organisation with its work.
It can be lot of work.
I try to take this approach - accept that it's impossible, but still do an amazing job anyway. I've been surprised how much I can do when I stop thinking about how impossible the situation is, and just get on with it.
The downside is it is almost inevitable that we will sometimes fall short and make mistakes.
It's a bit like riding a mechanical bull. Sometimes I’ll be inelegant in how I manage to stay in the saddle. Sometimes, I’ll get thrown off. When that happens, the most important thing is not to feel bad, but just get back on the saddle. When mistakes happen, I don't think it helps to wallow in a full post-mortem. If there are obvious lessons that can be learned, of course those should be noted.
I think that special libraries can be the best libraries to work in if you find fulfilment in not just providing a good library service, but in helping your organisation do its job. It's easier if you can find an organisation that you believe in.