• Ideally the library collection generally should be as small as possible and focussed on the needs of the parent body.  In most cases, the aim should NOT be to have a big collection – it should be to have reliable and fast access to very relevant high quality information whether it is held in-house or not.  It would be better to purchase one highly relevant very expensive market research study for instance, or subscribe to an expensive online service, in some environments, than to collect a lot of free or inexpensive publications all of which then need to be catalogued and stored, but possibly do not contain “valuable” insights for the parent body and may be rarely used.

So in some environments in the 21st century, Special Librarians work without physical library collections but with online access to powerful information resources such as Bloomberg in the financial services sector.

  • Key Special Library staff should be fully aware of major projects, major challenges and what keeps the senior staff of the organisation awake at night!  They should be both proactive and reactive, with knowledge of the specialised literature and sources they are handling, and thus recognised as key partners supporting all professional staff in the organisations.   This is where the Special Librarian can contribute valuable information for the knowledge infrastructure of their parent body.
  • Access to the most appropriate online resources is today essential. Many of these will be available via the Web but behind paywalls. Other free sources such as Social Media are also often highly relevant. The Special Librarian needs to have the knowledge to determine which sources are appropriate for various tasks.  Some Special Libraries have been closed because they avoided the most appropriate electronic resources or failed to make the case for investing in the most relevant databases.
  • If there is a collection of hard copy publications, it should be well catalogued and classified.  The least effective Special Libraries are those that have too many, barely relevant and often free publications that are available readily elsewhere and catalogued obscurely. Even gratis publications that are not highly relevant to the parent bodies’ activities should not be kept just in case they may be useful.
  • Some of the best Special Libraries collate valuable internal data into online databases, e.g. languages, or other skills.  Some are able to on-sell some of their internally created databases to external data providers in return for royalties.
  • Many Special Librarians now deliver insights to specific issues using a variety of online resources and sometimes with visual presentations, such as dashboards.  Some even collate field data to be reported along with relevant knowledge from online resources.
  • The staff must be fully trained and up to date with their knowledge of how to use modern services available to them and importantly to validate the information they provide.  In addition to knowledge of online information resources and database management skills, Special Library staff also need other skills such as  understanding financial statements, the ability to analyse data, communication skills including the ability to rapidly extract and summarise key information and to present the results sometimes using dashboards.
  • Timely response is more important than ever and yet validation and cross checking to ensure that only reliable results are delivered are also increasingly important.
  • Interacting with other libraries – especially sharing knowledge and inter library lending is useful as long as there are no conflicts with the parent body’s goals. If high cost publications have been purchased for sole use of the owner, they must not be loaned to other libraries.
  • Marketing and promotion of Special libraries continues to be important. In the 21st century promotional opportunities abound with the ability to have a website, to manage online access to licensed publications through a corporate intranet, to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook. But marketing still requires a rigorous analysis of the products and services required by key members of staff in the parent organisation.
  • Measurement of performance is essential. Rather than simple counts of total questions that can include valueless activities, contributions to major projects need to be monitored, analysed and reported.  This data will be needed to continually show the value the Special Library is delivering to the organisation.

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