Survival Lessons for Libraries: Educating Special Librarians-'The Past Is Prologue'

Article excerpt


When we began writing this series of articles addressing survival lessons for special libraries, we had more questions than answers; this is still the case. What we have learned is that there is no one "right way" to be successful as an information professional in a corporate or other type of special library. Frankly, though, it was pretty straightforward to come up with several wrong ways that make being successful even more of a challenge.

Arriving at the right ways to succeed and thereby ensure survival is more difficult. Nonetheless, we do firmly believe there is one generic formula that makes success more likely--strategic alignment with your parent organization or potential employer. How you go about "doing the math" depends totally on figuring out how to achieve that alignment.

We thought it might be useful to "peel back the onion," so to speak, and look at the roots of how someone who wants to be an information professional in a special library would achieve that goal. This led us to review some of our initial questions about the likelihood of special library/librarian survival in the context of library education--basically going back to the source of how we as information professionals learn about our profession and how to pursue it specifically when working in a specialized environment (corporate, medical, government, legal, etc.). Here is where we believe we might find the root cause of many of the obstacles to success with which special libraries (and the information professionals who work in them) struggle.

For the purposes of this article, when we talk about library education, we are referring to graduate level library/information programs accredited by the American Library Association (ALA) and resulting in a master's degree or the myriad similar degrees related to information management currently being offered. (2)

Deja Vu All Over Again (With Apologies to Yogi Berra)

Writing in the journal Special Libraries in 1910, John Cotton Dana had already realized the challenge faced by the profession in formulating a definition of a special library. He characterized an early definition, "the library of the modern man of affairs," as not sufficiently inclusive. Even his beloved modern businessmen's branch in the Newark Public Library, though it had proved itself of great value as a "useful tool for business firms of all kinds in the city," was still considered "far from being a typical special library of men of affairs." (3) Dana found there was already such a variety of special collections of books, reports, and other printed materials that no definition could satisfactorily include them all. He predicted an even wider and more rapid development of all kinds of special libraries.

By 1914, when the number of special libraries had grown, Dana described the driving force behind this growth:

   One can only say that managers of scientific, engineering,
   manufacturing, managerial, commercial, financial, insurance,
   advertising, social and other organizations, including
   states, cities, government commissions and the like,
   are ... coming every day in increasing numbers to the obvious
   conclusion, that it pays to employ an expert who shall
   be able, when equipped with proper apparatus, to give
   them from day to day news of the latest movements in
   their respective fields. (4)

From our perspective, the role of providing "day to day news of the latest movements in their respective fields" is simply another way of recognizing the value of the special librarian who is aligned with his or her employer's mission. By 1919 Dana was being even more explicit:

   [The special library] contains all the useful things in all
   aspects of the organization which maintains it, and can
   obviously contribute to that organization's success; and it
   contains much, very much, that can help the men behind
   the organization--the "workingmen". …