Special Librarianship


Special Librarianship — MLIS Career Pathway

Special libraries, also called information centers, knowledge resource centers, or a variety of similar names, are information-focused units that support the strategic goals of the organization within which they’re based. A special library may itself be its own department with from one (a “solo librarian”) to dozens of librarians and other information professionals.

In addition, a special library may be:

  • centralized or distributed, with staff directly supporting operating groups (“embedded librarianship”);
  • collaborating with global teams;
  • virtual or place-based; and
  • supporting for-profit and nonprofit organizations from literally hundreds of industries, government agencies, and cultural heritage advocacy institutions, among other groups.

Please see this 2021 article that addresses many kinds of special libraries.

(To learn more about careers in two of the largest types of special libraries, see Law Librarianship and Medical Librarianship, and for an example of one of the types of activities you might engage in as a special librarian for a business organization, see Competitive Intelligence.)

Special libraries often have a more narrowly-focused clientele than libraries in educational or public settings, and often deal with a specialized or particular type of information such as bioengineering or financial services. As noted, they directly support the mission of their sponsoring organization, so their collections and services are targeted and specific to the needs of their users.

Please see the Special Library Career Environment pages for additional detailed information about jobs and work life in special libraries and information centers, salaries and opportunities, job search resources, tips to ace the interview, and more.

See also: Special Libraries Association: Competencies for Information Professionals (2016).

Employment Opportunities

Special librarians are information resource experts dedicated to putting knowledge to work to attain the goals of their organizations. Their position titles and responsibilities are as varied as the environments in which they’re employed. A few examples of the diverse services that special librarians may perform include:

  • Creating knowledge, data, and document databases through which organizations can access their internal information
  • Developing and maintaining a portfolio of cost-effective, client-valued information services that are aligned with the strategic directions of the organization and internal departments and client groups
  • Evaluating, comparing, and choosing which information software and sources of data to purchase prior to best support the goals of the organization
  • Maintaining current awareness of emerging information, collaboration, and decision-support technologies and both sharing this information with key decision-makers as appropriate and using these technologies to provide effective information services
  • Preparing research and analysis reports in response to internal requests for specific information
  • Supporting business- , market- , and product-development efforts by performing such activities as competitive intelligence research; market analysis; trends forecasting; data organization, management, and analysis; and patent and trademarks searching, among others
  • Training colleagues throughout the organization to efficiently and cost-effectively use online databases and other resources in support of their department’s strategic goals
  • Verifying facts for external and internal reports, publications, and decision-support

MLIS Skills at Work

The MLIS Skills at Work includes important trends and data that are needed to prepare for career advancement within the information professions. The following information within the report relates directly to the Special Libraries career path. However, slides #12, #13, and #14 showcase/highlight the skills most valuable to employers.

  • See the MLIS Skills at Work report, slides #5 through #8 for more detailed information about hiring trends and slide #21 for representative job titles
  • See slides #38 (Government Agencies and Organizations), #37 (Corporate Organizations, Business Libraries), #40 (Legal: Academic, Government, Private Practice), #41 (Medical, Pharmaceutical, Health Science), and #42 (Nonprofit Organizations) to view sample job titles, job duties, job skills, and technology/standards for various special library paths
  • See also slides #25 (Collection, Acquisition and Circulation), #24 (Cataloging and Metadata), #32 (Reference and Research), and #31 (Outreach, Programming and Instruction) for additional roles within this career pathway

Core Theory and Knowledge

In 2016, the Special Library Association (SLA) revised its Competencies for Information Professionals statement to reflect an expanded universe of opportunities and responsibilities, stating:

More and more work is knowledge work, and many professionals of all types have responsibility for elements of knowledge and information management. One category of professionals makes data, information, and knowledge its primary focus. These professionals come from various educational backgrounds, including library science, information science, and other disciplines. They work in many different types of organizations and settings and have a variety of job titles and professional labels. For purposes of simplicity and consistency, the term “information professional” will be used in this document to describe them.

Regardless of their job title and professional label, information professionals are connected by their focus on managing and applying the data, information, and knowledge required in their setting. They take a holistic view of the role of information and knowledge in organizations and communities, and they are concerned with information and knowledge through all stages of their life cycle.

Reflecting this wider mandate for information professionals, the revised Core Competencies address six key aspects of information work, which, taken together, outline the primary skill areas of special librarians:

  • Information and knowledge services
  • Information and knowledge systems and technology
  • Information and knowledge resources
  • Information and data retrieval and analysis
  • Organization of data, information, and knowledge assets
  • Information ethics

The Core Competencies document provides in-depth descriptions of each of these areas and the competencies within them, so is a great starting point for understanding what types of skills are involved. Equally valuable is SLA’s identification of “enabling competencies,” which it considers essential to professional success and career development. Included among these are:

  • Critical thinking, including qualitative and quantitative reasoning
  • Initiative, adaptability, flexibility, creativity, innovation, and problem solving
  • Effective oral and written communication, including influencing skills
  • Relationship building, networking, and collaboration, including the ability to foster respect, inclusion, and communication among diverse individuals
  • Marketing
  • Leadership, management, and project management
  • Life-long learning
  • Instructional design and development, teaching, and mentoring
  • Business ethics

MLIS Requirements

The MLIS program requires 43 units for graduation. Within those units, six courses (16 units) are required of all MLIS students and must be taken as part of all career pathways: INFO 203, INFO 200, INFO 202, INFO 204, INFO 285, and either INFO 289 or INFO 299. Beyond those six courses, a student is free to select electives reflecting individual interests and aspirations. See: MLIS Information.

If you are interested in this career pathway, you may choose to select from the Foundation or Recommended course electives listed below. Foundation courses form the foundational knowledge and skills for this pathway. If you can only select a few electives, then choose from the Foundation courses. The Recommended courses are very relevant, but not as foundational to this career pathway.

The Career Pathway described here is provided solely for advising purposes. No special designation appears on your transcript or diploma. All graduating students receive an MLIS degree.

Recommended Coursework

Required Courses:

Foundation Courses:

Recommended Courses:

Effective leadership and management (of people and information) is critically important for all types of work environments and clients.  We recommend that students also consider selecting courses from the Leadership and Management career path to complement or supplement core skills in other areas.

Areas of Emphasis within the Special Librarianship Pathway

While all students earn an MLIS degree from the iSchool (no special designation appears on academic transcripts or diplomas), students may include Area of Emphasis information about their skill sets on resumes and in cover letters. The iSchool faculty (with input from the Information Intermediation & Instruction Program Advisory Committee) developed the recommended courses below for these Areas of Emphasis.

Special Librarianship

Government Librarianship

Law Librarianship

Medical Librarianship


Faculty pathway advisors are available to help guide you and answer questions about planning a career in their area of expertise.

Learn More

  • Check out the Special Library Career Environment pages for additional detailed information about jobs and work life in special libraries and information centers, salaries and opportunities, job search resources, tips to ace the interview, and more.
  • Read Community Profiles of students and alumni pursuing this career pathway.
  • Browse presentations by professionals working in the field.
  • Search the Alumni Career Spotlights for alumni working in this field. Consider contacting alumni for an informational interview.



Law Librarianship

Law librarians work in many different settings. They can be found in academic law libraries, in state- and county-level public law libraries, in court houses, government agencies, private law firms, and other environments. Their patrons range from the general public to law students, to attorneys, and possibly judges. Some law librarians have a JD (juris doctor), or law degree, but it is certainly not necessary to work in the field. According to the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), fewer than 20% of law library jobs require both an MLIS and a JD.


Medical Librarianship

Health Sciences Librarianship

Medical librarians, also known as health information professionals, medical information specialists, or multiple variations thereof, find, analyze, provide access to and present critical information that improves patient care and supports health and medical education, research, and publication.


Competitive Intelligence

Competitive intelligence (CI) is the process of systematically gathering, monitoring, analyzing, and disseminating external information of strategic value to an organization, for example information about competitors, customers, markets, and products. The purpose of CI is decision support, that is, providing key decision makers with the insights they need to make informed strategic choices about current or potential competitive threats and opportunities.