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).
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 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 #11 and #12 showcase/highlight the skills most valuable to employers.
- See the report, slides #5 through #7 for more detailed information about hiring trends and slide #10 for representative job titles
- See slides #35 (Government Agencies and Organizations), #36 (Business and Nonprofit Organizations), #37 (Legal – Academic, Government and Corporate), and #38 (Health – Academic, Government and Corporate) to view sample job titles, job duties, job skills, and technology/standards for various special library paths
- See also slides #19 (Collection, Acquisition and Circulation), #20 (Cataloging and Metadata), #21 (Reference and Research), and #22 (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
- Leadership, management, and project management
- Life-long learning
- Instructional design and development, teaching, and mentoring
- Business ethics
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 students get an MLIS degree.
Faculty pathway advisors are available to help guide you and answer questions about planning a career in their area of expertise. Learn more about faculty pathway advisors.
- INFO 203 Online Learning: Tools and Strategies for Success
- INFO 200 Information Communities
- INFO 202 Information Retrieval System Design
- INFO 204 Information Professions
- INFO 285 Applied Research Methods in Library and Information Science
- INFO 289 or INFO 299 Culminating Experience
- INFO 210 Reference and Information Services
- INFO 220 Resources and Information Services in Professions and Disciplines
Students should select an area of interest, such as Legal Resources, Maps and GIS, Medical and Health Sciences Librarianship, Film and Media Collections, Data Services in Libraries, Visual Resources Curation and Arts Librarianship, etc. [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
- INFO 221 Government Information Sources
- INFO 231 Issues in Special Libraries and Information Centers
- INFO 240 Information Technology Tools and Applications (Web site design)
- INFO 242 Database Management
- INFO 244 Online Searching
- INFO 246 Information Technology Tools and Applications: Advanced
The sections on text/data mining, information visualization, big data analytics and management are all relevant [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
- INFO 247 Vocabulary Design
- INFO 281 Seminar in Contemporary Issues
Section on Exploring the Digital Content Life Cycle [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
- INFO 282 Seminar in Library Management
Sections on using social media for competitive and company research, project management, change management, knowledge management, the emerging future: technology trends and issues are all relevant [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
- INFO 283 Marketing of Information Products and Services
- INFO 287 Seminar in Information Science
Sections on collecting and analyzing data for evidence based decisions, cybersecurity are relevant. [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
- INFO 294 Professional Experience: Internships
- INFO 281 Seminar in Contemporary Issues
Section on metadata [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
- INFO 284 Seminar in Archives and Records Management
Sections on digital curation or tools, services, methodologies for digital curation [See current topics. Select class number then topics]
Effective leadership and management (of people and information) is critically important for all types of work environments and clients.
We recommend that students consider also selecting some courses from the Leadership and Management career path to complement or supplement core skills in other areas.
Special Libraries Association
Students interested in pursuing a career in special librarianship are encouraged to get involved with the Special Libraries Association. It’s a great way to network and learn more about the special librarianship career pathway.
- Join the SJSU information school’s student chapter of the Special Libraries Association.
- Learn more about the Special Libraries Association, including membership benefits, student membership rates, and local chapters.
- 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.